The Million Student Classroom

August 26, 2013

What would it be like to have a million students in the same classroom?

This is a ridiculous question, of course. But, two years ago, what if the question had been “what would it be like to have 100,000 students in the same classroom?” That would have sounded just as ridiculous, but the 100,000 student classroom is real and many MOOCs enroll tens of thousands of students.

The M in MOOC stands for massive – as in massive open online course (MOOC). So what would it take to create a super massive MOOC (sMOOC?), one with a million students?
First, it would need to be in an area of broad public appeal, probably in history, politics or international relations, not maths or science where many of the larger MOOCs currently reside.
Similarly, it would need to be about a topic or public figure with immense and enduring appeal, known to and attractive to a global audience.
Third, the MOOC would need to be entertaining, probably fronted by a professor who is not only an expert in the topic, but with narrative finesse on the order of David Attenborough or Morgan Freeman.
Fourth, the MOOC would need to be produced with the flash of a Hollywood blockbuster – lots of film clips overlaid with dramatic music and revealing narrative, no whiteboards or PowerPoint slides here please.
Fifth, timing might be a factor with the topic of the MOOC dominating news headlines, similar to if a MOOC about Al Qaeda was started on 12 September 2001.

For me, all of these factors came together when I watched the introductory video of The Kennedy Half Century, a MOOC from the University of Virginia being offered by Coursera during October-November 2013.

So can The Kennedy Half Century be a million learner MOOC? It ticks all the boxes.

Political figures who rise to mythical stature — Churchill, Gandhi, Kennedy, Mandela — come to the world’s attention only once every half century or so. When he was assassinated, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was at the peak of his international popularity, a war hero, the ruler of a White House culture called Camelot, who pronounced “Ich bin ein Berliner” at the Berlin Wall and whose words and actions have been cited and imitated┬áby every American President since then. How many of you reading this blog can finish the quote “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask…”? For those of you who are over the age of 55, can you answer the question “where were you when you heard about the assassination of John F. Kennedy?” I bet you can. So the life, times, and legacies of Kennedy still live in our world and in our consciousness. Tick boxes 1 and 2.

A great story also needs a great story teller. Larry Sabato is the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, but he is also a frequent political commentator on American television and an Emmy Award winning presenter and producer. Most recently, he is the author of The Kennedy Half Century, a book to be published in October 2013, just as this MOOC begins. He is also the producer and presenter of a Public Broadcasting Service documentary of the same title, also premiering in October. The MOOC’s introductory video matches Hollywood standards, even with a flashy credits screen that is visible for less than a third of a second, but which I have screen-captured here. Tick boxes 3 and 4.

And the timing of this MOOC couldn’t be more perfect. The book release and documentary will funnel a huge number of people to the Coursera site to learn more (or to learn less, why read a book when you can learn and engage with the key lessons in a course?). And there is a distinct possibility that the due date for the final assignment will be the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963. Tick box 5, big time.

So The Kennedy Half Century is the first MOOC that could create the million student classroom. How great would that be? I have signed up, how about you?

Dennis Viehland
Associate Professor, Information Systems
School of Management
Massey University

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The Other Side of Business

Welcome to The Other Side of Business. This is a blog that collects and distributes the opinion and analysis of staff and students from the School of Management, College of Business, Massey University. The aim is to post once or twice a month on current issues in business... Read more