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In this Op-Ed essay, Thomas Friedman writes about the new generation of online university courses offered by Stanford, MIT and companies like Coursera and Udacity. The growth of the numbers of students taking these courses is phenomenal. MIT and Harvard have launched a new nonprofit company called edX to offer MOOCs—massive open online courses. Friedman’s dream is that MOOCs will democratize knowledge and education allowing more people, unexpected people, to become students at sophisticated institutions. Courses made available to students around the world could change the relationship between US institutions and other communities and could further boost the reputation, credibility, and desirability of a university education from a US university.

What are the potential opportunities for art historians and medievalists in for open, online courses? Big numbers in student enrolment seems to be a critical threshold that changes the nature of the course. I doubt that enough students would ever want to pursue art history or medieval studies, though. I think the reasons students are drawn to courses on science, technology, and computers are because they want to learn new skills and earn credentials in those fields in order to qualify for further training or improved job opportunities. Frankly, the pursuit of knowledge in the humanities does not promise a direct return on investment.

My dream is that open, online courses in medieval and Byzantine studies would help students interested in these fields learn some of the core material in these disciplines. Most universities are unable to offer courses in Byzantine studies because there just isn’t enough interest within their student population. A collaborative model that pools resources—multiple faculty, museum collections, on-location footage—could expose even more students to these fields of studies than ever before. Open, online courses help make a research field more relevant to the general public, and Byzantinists are certainly challenged to defend the relevance of our studies to non-academics.

This course format would probably end up reinforcing the problematic trend in art history which is that students just don’t spend enough time looking at real objects. All our learning is mediated through pictures, screens, scans, and slides. It is hard not to imagine that a MOOC on medieval art would simply function as an online, continuing education course for a very small, self-selecting group of individuals. And, frankly, it is hard to get excited about teaching an even larger crop of recently retired ladies and gentlemen who have passing interests in painting and sculpture.

What if some learned societies offered a MOOC? What if the Medieval Academy or the Byzantine Studies Association offered a course for anyone who wanted an introduction to medieval literature or the history of Byzantine art? The Khan Academy is already offering a huge library of videos on a range of topics for free. The difference with these, though, is that the videos aren’t part of a larger “course” in which students are expected to participate by writing essays or taking exams. There is no way of measuring the learning experience by the students. A video series by BSANA or MAA has the potential of integrating some of the current voices in the field with works in museums and curatorial projects in much the same way that some of the Smarthistory videos use footage shot inside museums. These videos could live on a separate website created for the purpose of hosting the video series; the learned society could help provide contacts of authoritative speakers on various topics; and the majority of the funding for projects like this would have to come from some fellowship-granting agency. This is just an idea about connecting my disciplines with the ever-changing educational and technology landscape.

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