Date Presented:22-25 Apr
While the World Wide Web has provided the public at large with heretofore-unimagined access to information, the egalitarian – and frequently anonymous – nature of online content creation has also provided an unprecedented opportunity for the spread of misinformation and misinterpretation alike. Archaeology is no exception to the double-edged sword that is the 21st century web, as the opening of museum collections, the ability to conduct armchair “surveys” via tools like Google Earth, unfettered access to uncontextualized images via simple Web search, and similar developments have combined to confront a new generation of avocational and aspiring archaeologists with myriad explanations and interpretations of artifacts, archaeological data, and history writ large.
While certainly – and literally! – not a deus ex machina, the rise of the MOOC (both in its traditional definition as “massive open online course,” and in its growing use as a repository for massively-accessible online content) may help counter this current state of affairs by providing a structured mechanism for professionals across the academy to reach, interact with, educate, and learn from an ever-growing online audience. This is of particular importance for archaeology, a field in which standards of conduct and interpretation are keys to sound and ethical practice.
The open, inclusive nature of MOOC-based learning experiences can allow them to compete with similarly free and open sources of information about archaeological topics that are broadly accessible on the public Internet. Further, in the MOOC environment, experts leading open online learning experiences can draw in new participants, while simultaneously ensuring that the facts, techniques, and practices conveyed in their particular learning experience represent accurate scholarly interpretation and understanding, as well as the most up-to-date professional standards and methods. Successful participants, in turn, may go on to serve as international and intercultural hubs from which accurate, professionally-conveyed information can flow outward to various peripheries, while at the same time the multicultural nature of MOOC audiences may also serve as a mechanism for improving the professional practice of archaeology, in part by creating a feedback loop via which practitioners can be exposed to viewpoints and cultural interpretations that might not be commonly considered.
While distance education is not a new phenomenon by any means, the combination of open learning opportunities and 21st century technologies has allowed “non-traditional” education to take a decidedly non-traditional turn of its own. New technologies and techniques allow learners to be provided with interactive experiences, while teachers can be provided the ability to keep their fingers on the pulse of the participant collective, ensuring that knowledge and understanding are being effectively communicated to the community of learners, and that the feedback loop between participants and practitioners remains firmly in place. This paper considers the role of MOOCs in this “new academy,” with two open learning experiences offered by HarvardX/edX in 2013 serving as case studies to evaluate and demonstrate the opportunity presented by the MOOC phenomenon not only to engage students online, but to take steps toward creating a true worldwide community of practice.