The #storyMOOC is a Good Example for Archaeologists

This week, I finally started a massive open online class (MOOC) called “The Future of Storytelling” on iversity. So far, the course has exceeded my expectations. Engaging content. Great videos and illustrations. Good recommended readings and projects. It is well produced and much better than the online courses I remember taking as an undergraduate in the 1990s. Storytelling is an ungraded class, but I can see how it could easily be converted to a course that can be taken for undergraduate college credit. Aside from my personal interest in the art of storytelling, attending this course is essential for my summer project of creating a MOOC for cultural resource management and heritage conservation professionals.

For those of you that don’t know, a MOOC is an online class that is open to anyone with a computer/tablet/smartphone and an internet connection. The storytelling class was produced in conjunction with the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam. Applied Sciences Potsdam has about 3,000 students on campus. Most classes have between 10 and 30 students. The Storytelling MOOC has over 55,000 enrolled students!

Most MOOCs, including Storytelling, are free, but many have options where students can pay to earn college credit. Iversity started out as a student project that found sponsorship within the German government and has launched several successful MOOCs since 2011. It joins a rapidly growing field of online schools like iTunes University, Coursera, and MOOCs sponsored by universities like Harvard (

The best MOOCs are successful because of their ability to reach huge audiences, incorporation of video and text, and associated online forums. Storytelling is an eight-week course. Each week is broken into several video modules that are 2-6 minutes long. All modules have a way to add to the discussion and most have associated YouTube videos, interviews with professional writers, and/or written text. Relevant books are recommended for the modules. The interactivity and diverse media used to convey messages are excellent ways to reach students of all ages. Both colleges and public schools are embracing MOOCs.

With the returns on college degrees declining when compared to rising tuition costs, I believe MOOCs are the best bet at distributing a college-level education to the large population that needs it. Despite the costs and efforts required to build a quality MOOC like The Future of Storytelling, I think these courses will be cheaper in the long run than attending a traditional college class. Professors and professionals that embrace MOOCs will be at the cutting edge of online teaching. Archaeologists need to join the fray.

The MOOC Debate

While most individuals can agree that MOOCs address a serious need in modern society, the principal debate revolves around the quality of teaching, ways of proving class achievements, the issue of democratizing education, and how colleges can profit from them. MOOCs are advertised as democratizing forces in education that should be dedicated towards spreading information rather than testing students’ absorption level of class content. Basically, the idea is everyone should have access to the information but do not necessarily have to be tested on class materials in order to learn. Forbes magazine has spent significant effort covering the development of MOOCs. In the article “Students Issue Report Card on MOOCs”, Forbes summarizes a particularly well-received computer programming courses on openSAP. This particular course had a 30-60% completion rate, which contrasts with the more typical 6-8% completion rate.

Compelling arguments have also been made about the way MOOCs can reduce ever-increasing costs of higher education. Business appears to have embraced MOOCs as a way of training employees and filling the gap between education and industry (BTW: closing this gap between college and the CRM industry is also the reason I started Succinct Research). Asking “Should Business Education be Free?”, author Susan Galer remarks that MOOCs could be an alternative to the current system where business students can easily amass over $30,000 in student loans before they even enter the job market. Galer also writes that the democratization of education may also be a way to help business innovation move faster because course materials can be made available to huge audiences, are not restricted to location, and content is multi-modal. She also points out several weaknesses by acknowledging classes are not really interactive in the same way as in-person class attendance and the courses had low levels of personalization (

The biggest bone of contention is the fact that MOOC students do not always have a way to demonstrate course completion and do not always earn college credit. Legitimacy is at the core of a college degree because the degree is widely considered evidence of intellectual achievement. This evidence of intellectual achievement will always be open for debate, but the fact remains that many jobs and industries, archaeology included, require college degrees as a prerequisite for employment. Like it or not, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for an archaeologist is important for being considered a cultural resource management professional in the United States. A PhD from an accredited university is also a principal requirement for becoming a professor. In order to fulfill these requirements, students will need some sort of evidence that they’ve absorbed course materials. This can be attained through a MOOC, especially one sponsored by an accredited university. This is where issues of tuition come into play.

MOOCs=Easy Income for Colleges

Universities bring in a substantial portion of their operating budgets from undergraduate students, especially those that do not have tuition waivers, grants, or scholarships. Without a means of collecting money from students, universities do not have much motivation to change their current operational strategies. It would be in the best interest of most universities to offer a wide range of MOOCs that can contribute to college degrees because it would drastically lower operating costs per class while bringing in additional income.

Imagine if you could enroll 55,000 students in a class and convince 6% of them (3,300 individuals) to pay the going rate for a single, 3-credit course (6% is the aforementioned low completion rate for most MOOCs as stated by Forbes). At the University of Arizona where I am enrolled as a PhD student, the out of state cost for a single 3-credit class is $1,791 which means the university could rake in $5,910,300 for a single successful, widely-received MOOC like The Art of Storytelling (which is arguable better than any of the English literature classes I took as an undergraduate). Even if the University charged the modest fee of $150 or $250 for each MOOC, they’d rake in a respectable $495,000 or $825,000. It’s not the $5.9 million they’d get from on-campus students, but there’s no way a professor could teach 3,300 students in a single class section without a significant online component and an army of teaching assistants (TAs). It’s also unlikely that 3,300 of the current 39,236 students at the U of A would take the same class in a single semester.

In order to reach and grade 3,300 students, the university would have to hire a lot of TAs. When I was a TA in grad school the first time, I usually covered 100- and 200-level classes with anywhere from 30 to 130 students, so it might take 33 TAs to cover this hypothetical MOOC. Even still, at $150/class, the university could easily be able to pay 33 TAs at the median half-time rate (about $9,000/year at the University of Arizona which comes to $297,000 in wages for this hypothetical class) and still have $198,000 to throw into the school’s war chest. Now, imagine each of these TAs covered TWO MOOCs of this same size while still receiving half-time pay. In this scenario, the university is bringing in $693,000 of straight income without a significant expansion of overhead!

The above scenario is just an imaginary example, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the benefits for both the universities and students. Given enough undergraduate MOOCs at $150/class, students could pay about $600 to $750 for a full semester’s worth of classes. Hypothetically, students could work themselves through college again and get a BA for about $6,000!! If these classes had the huge attendance rate of The Future of Storytelling, universities would have the justification and ability to hire a huge number of TAs and expand their graduate programs. Just think about what would happen if every graduate student had adequate funding!!! Even if the classes weren’t as well attended as Storytelling, just think of all the students a university could reach at an affordable rate and how many more graduate students they could accept/hire. Clearly, there are compelling reasons to create and get students to pay for MOOCs.

MOOCs for Archaeologists

If MOOCs are good for higher education and the world, why aren’t there more archaeology MOOCs? The whole MOOC thing is currently in its earliest stages. Archaeology is not known for being an early adopter of new concepts, but I do think it’s time for us to enter this industry for a number of reasons. Archaeologists are constantly pondering different ways to increase diversity and reach wider audiences. There is already much public interest in archaeology as evidenced by popular movies and the proliferation of television shows. For better or worse, Hollywood and cable television are controlling our public image. Creating a series of MOOCs would be a great way to take control of our public image and direct the public debate. It would also be a great way to spread ideas among students and archaeologists around the world.

In addition to The Art of Storytelling, I have been looking around the internet for archaeology related MOOCs. There are a couple archaeology courses on the iTunes University, but they pale in comparison with the Storytelling class. I am also following archaeology professor Dr. John Hawks’ progress with creating his first MOOC– Human Evolution, Past and Present. Apparently, he traveled the world filming mini-documentaries with paleoanthropologists that he will incorporate in the class. (How sweet it would be to actually go to the places talked about in your classes and make a video about the discoveries there!) This free class goes live in January of 2014, but you can join the existing 17,000+ individuals that have already enrolled in the course on Coursera. Based on my calculations above, the University of Wisconsin-Madison where Hawks works could bring in over $150,000 by charging a modest fee for this class (17,000 x 0.06=1,020 x $150= $153,000). Hawks is also chronicling his efforts on his blog ( While I’m not interested in paleoanthropology, I can’t wait to take this class.

Throwing an Educational Change-up

Most college anthropology classes are extremely boring because they follow the old-school lecture format. Sometimes a video or discussion period is thrown in the mix, but, most of the time, we just sit back and try to stay awake while a prof talks on and on about something she/he thinks is interesting. I am among the thousands (perhaps, millions) of borderline ADD students that really struggle with keeping my concentration throughout these classes. I find discussion classes much more interesting. Discussions force me to stay current with the readings because I don’t want to embarrass myself by not being familiar with course topics. Unless a class is discussion-based, which is nearly impossible with large undergraduate classes, I think the lecture needs to be broken up with videos or audio tracks. MOOCs are an excellent way to address the diversity of individual learning styles and keep students motivated and concentrated. They are also an untapped financial resource for anthropology departments across the country.

Please contact me if you are interested in participating in my cultural resource management/heritage conservation MOOC or just have something to say.

If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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