7,000 Students, 900 Hours, 29 Lecturers, 1 MOOC

Pedro Lasch discusses his first experience teaching public art to the masses on the Internet

Public Art MOOC

Amber Keller submitted this work of a public living room in Pedro Lasch's MOOC on public art.

For the last half of a year, Art, Art History and Visual Studies professor Pedro Lasch convened 7,000 students from around the world to answer one question: “Can a MOOC be a work of art?”

“Art of the MOOC” (short for “massive open online course”), hosted by the online education company Coursera, introduced students to the key concepts and practices of public art and explored the uses of online courses as vehicles for artistic creation. Lasch co-taught the course with Nato Thompson, the chief curator of New York-based public art organization Creative Time. The MOOC took 900 hours to put together and featured 29 guest lecturers from around the globe including artists, activists and even the mayor of Bogota, Colombia. Lasch discussed the benefits, challenges and surprises of teaching (and grading!) art online.

Q: It seems that the “typical” MOOC student’s experiences consist of watching online videos and taking corresponding multiple-choice quizzes. How did the experience of your students compare to that of more conventional MOOC enrollees?

A: Coursera builds in two kinds of assessments to each of its MOOCs: the machine-graded assessment and the peer assessment. The peer assessment function in MOOCs comes standard with the interface, but it is usually ignored or under-utilized because it is not considered as reliable as machine-graded assessments. In our case, we had almost no use for these machine-graded quizzes, because you really can’t grade art in that way.

Each week, every student responded to a video prompt with a piece of art. We had over 1,000 art projects sent in the first week of the course from students from all over the world. The only way these students could expect to receive feedback and grades in a [timely] manner was through peer assessment, so each week we split them into [randomly-generated] groups of four to evaluate each other. And while this peer assessment feature is underused or underappreciated in most online courses, it is not unusual for artists. Artists have gotten together in cultural circles to exchange ideas about art for centuries. We call it critique or criticism and it’s at the core of our profession.

Public Art MOOC -- bookcase

From Iran, Saba Aghababaei submitted this image of an employee shocking her supervisor from atop a bookcase.

Q: Were there any weekly prompts in particular that triggered a significant amount of discussion in the peer assessment groups or on the classroom forum?

A: In the second week, we asked our students to submit unfinished drawings to their peer assessment groups. Rather than judging their peers’ unfinished drawings, we put the “judges” on the spot by asking them to complete the drawings. So we started out with 800 drawings but more than doubled that number on the class forum by the end of the week. In giving the students this assignment, we saw that a MOOC is not just a broadcasting medium, but a way to transform the creative process.

Q: In an interview with Duke Today last fall, you mentioned that you and your colleagues had the “happy problem” of having 29 guest lecturers commit to participating in interviews and conversations for your MOOC.

A: We actually had 10 different time zones represented among our guest speakers. We arranged the interviews so they would coincide with some of the international events I was attending last summer, like the Venice Biennale, or could be conducted over Skype. I don’t think I’ll ever do that again. In the next version of this MOOC, we will definitely have fewer guest speakers! Based on our exit survey, even for our learners this was a bit too much, as hard as we tried to keep the guest presentations short. It was still great to have a wide ranges of voices heard, though, so this how much is too much will always be a tough decision.

Q: What were some of most challenging aspects of creating and managing this MOOC outside of the obvious difficulty of taping interviews with all those guest lecturers?

A: It’s deeply alienating for me to realize that I probably won’t see everyone’s work in the class. That’s not necessarily a negative statement about MOOCs, but it’s just a major difference from the 10-person Duke classes I have gotten used to teaching. And another thing I’ve learned from this experience is that if you’re not clear on everything in a MOOC, you will have 7,000 people bombarding you with clarifying questions. It’s a potential disaster. I am very glad I had expert advisers and course builders from the Duke Online Education team helping with this before we launched it all. Things could have gone very differently without them.

Public Art MOOC -- Tehran Metro

Also from Iran, Shahrzad Malekian composed this image on the Tehran metro.

Q: Despite Duke’s fairly early adoption of the medium, MOOCs remain a highly controversial tool in much of higher ed. How would you address some of the common criticisms of this format of teaching?

A: Many of the strongest criticisms of MOOCs arise from comparisons with regular brick-and-mortar classes. If I taught a class at Duke and started the semester out with 20 students and ended with just one student, I should probably be fired. But in MOOCs, that is a fairly successful completion rate. Almost 200 people finished the entire course, including all lectures, guest presentations, quizzes and weekly social art projects. I don’t see 200 out of 7,000 as a total disaster, as many [MOOC] critics would. To me, most of those people grabbed what was good for them [out of the curriculum] and then had to commit to their other responsibilities. I designed all the materials with this in mind.

They are not conventional courses. This is why I was trying to find a different “C”-word to characterize MOOCs rather than “courses.” In fact, I always considered the “C” in MOOC to stand for “conference” or “community.” Sure, there are lectures and a syllabus, but the MOOC offers so many unusual opportunities for interaction with people all over the world that I think “community” is more appropriate. The fact that 7,000 people around the world came together as a community on this topic of socially engaged, public art is pretty amazing. Likewise, no one expects anyone at a conference to attend all the panels and talks, even though a few people do it.

Q: You mentioned earlier that you will “definitely have fewer guest speakers” in the next incarnation of this MOOC. What other changes can we expect to see?

A: I have been going to meetings about re-launching this MOOC throughout this semester, although we have not settled on [an official re-launch] date yet. The major change actually came from Coursera. Rather than taking new versions of this MOOC in a single session [meaning that all participants complete all the modules concurrently], Coursera has introduced “automated cohorts.” This allows students to take the course at a personal pace that matches their goals and schedule. They are then matched up with other students taking the course at the same pace. This not only maintains the artistic community we created in the first course but also eliminates a lot of the problems of scale on my end, since we will have smaller groups of learners taking particular parts of the course simultaneously.

We are also going to release the new course as two shorter courses of three to four modules each, and translate all the materials into Spanish to expand our reach. And we are looking for new institutional partners. Our partnership with Creative Time will live on Coursera forever, but we want to expand to include other organizations in future MOOCs as we address a wider range of lecture topics and artistic approaches.