Inside MOOCs: Continuing Your Columbia Education


Eric Foner (Photo: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning)

If you haven't heard of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), you may be in the minority. Ever since the New York Times declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” more and more universities have used platforms such as edX and Coursera to experiment with online education; and Columbia is no exception.

Through MOOCs, Columbia's preeminent scholars are showcasing the highest quality offerings of the University to serious learners everywhere. Previous course leaders have included economist Jeffrey Sachs, virologist Vincent Racaniello, and computer scientist Michael Collins. So far, Columbia has produced more than a dozen courses and some are part of edX’s XSeries. According to the edX website, an XSeries is a “group of courses that add up to a rich understanding of an area of study.” Later this month, Columbia is re-launching one of its most successful MOOCs, which also happens to be an XSeries: “The Civil War and Reconstruction” with Professor Eric Foner '63CC, '69GSAS, a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian and one of the world’s leading experts on 19th-century America.  

Starting January 31, alumni, students, and anyone with an Internet connection around the world can sign up for this series of three free courses on that pivotal era in American history. The first part of the series (Politics of Freedom: The Civil War, 1861-1865) narrates the history of the American Civil War, focusing less on military conflict and more on political change during that time.

Check out a preview of the course:

In an effort to get a deeper look into this online learning experience, The Low Down posed some questions to Maurice Matiz ’79SEAS, ’84SEAS and Peter B. Kaufman from the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning, which produces the University’s MOOCs.

Why do we need MOOCs? Why do Universities continue to produce them?

KAUFMAN: Why do we need books? Why do we need physical courses? MOOCs are offering people access to another valuable opportunity and way to learn.

MATIZ: We saw MOOCs as an opportunity for us to use a new technology that would allow us to share the knowledge that the University has with the world. It was an altruistic goal: to get a large number of people involved in learning. It also allows us to showcase Columbia's faculty and programs to the world.

There is also an interest, I think, in using that to attract applicants and other students - maybe students from outside the US - to our campus programs and distance education programs we might have. It also has been a source of experimentation that allows us to improve how we teach on campus here, using some of the technological and pedagogical improvements that are possible and then apply them to "flip the classroom" models that we use here. We also saw the alumni piece [for Foner's course, alumni have access to exclusive videos, interviews, and extended clips] as a very important part. As an alum myself, I saw how this could be very interesting to alums and it was a way to give something back.

What sets Columbia's courses apart from the MOOCs at other institutions?

MATIZ: On one level, we have the caliber of the faculty. Eric Foner is a great example. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning faculty member, a star of Columbia, and he also went to school at the University. His textbook is a book that's used for every AP class in the country - or most AP classes in the country. He was the recent author of a NY Times bestseller! So, I think having faculty that are at that level allows us to be different and sets us apart from other universities.

Also, in Foner's MOOC, we employed primary sources. Columbia has one of the best rare book and manuscript libraries. And we were able to share with the world some of the assets that the library holds, which are among the best in the world. So, we're really using two elements that make Columbia one of the most elite universities (recognized around the world) and we're making that be part of the MOOC.

What did you find most interesting about the Foner MOOC?

MATIZ: I think the one thing that I was struck by is how humorous Eric Foner can be during his lectures - in a way that doesn't take away from the material. It's still very serious and has the right amount of gravitas, but he makes it so enjoyable. And I think that was the one thing that, overtime, when you're looking at 27 weeks of materials, those little elements actually make it quite watchable. So, that was a surprise. And that humor comes across well on the videotape. Sometimes, things that are recorded don't come across in the same way that they did in the room but his does. In his article [for Columbia Magazine] I think [David J.] Craig called it "a folksy delivery." And it's true! That's how he comes across. And then he adds these moments of humor that are just perfect. 

Also, with his class, we wanted to create a very engaging humanities class. Many of the MOOCs, to date, have been in the sciences, focusing on building skills. Those are sometimes much easier to do when it comes to online learning. But this [Foner’s course] was a different kind of class and we were very happy with the results. It was selected by Anant Agarwal as one of the two or three MOOCs that he highlighted during his keynote talk at the recent edX Global Forum. We've also received so much tremendous fan mail both to Foner and to the MOOC itself. And I think that alludes to the efforts we have made by our instructional designers and our video team to create really compelling curriculum and assets that can be reused. So, we're very proud of the product that we have put out there and we expect to stay at that level of quality for the ones coming in 2016.

What course would you like to see turned into a MOOC?

MATIZ: First off, I just want to mention that the Provost has now created a new MOOC RFP [Request for Proposals]. So, faculty will have to go through the RFP to be considered for a MOOCs, so there will be less of the adhoc process that we've had in the past.

But I think if I was to dream about what would be a great MOOC, maybe it might be a series of MOOCs. I'm not the first one to say this, but Columbia is known for the core curriculum. Wouldn't it be great if there was a way to put together a series of MOOCs - maybe four different small versions - about what it's like to be part of the core curriculum at Columbia? You know, something on the music humanities side, a little bit of the art humanities, a little bit of contemporary civilization, and literature humanities. I think putting together a sequence that would touch on all those would be a tremendous thing and a gift from Columbia.

KAUFMAN: We had this big conference here in October called "Learning with MOOCs." And there were some great keynotes. George Siemens [commonly considered to be the MOOC founder] gave the first keynote. And one of the things that he talked about is what we really can accomplish [with MOOCs]. Specifically, he talked about how to martial forces at universities across departments... Imagine what you could accomplish, given the fact that you have philosophers, economists, historians, and professors of literature... [and] biologists and bio chemists. How could we build a cross-disciplinary project (maybe a multi-year project) at a time when moral decisions are few and infrequent in our political and work life? How could we build a kind of project for making better decisions through the resources of a university? That, to me, could be a capstone project.

To register for Eric Foner's course, visit the edX website. In addition to The Civil War course, Columbia is also offering an XSeries on Data Science. Check it out.

Learn more about Columbia’s MOOCs and other online programs at