Rediscovering Lincoln

Discovering Lincoln

by Michelle Simmons 

In a 24/7 economy, it’s become de rigueur to hype beyond credulity and then trash any new digital commodity that crosses our virtual transoms—all of it within one or two news cycles. Bitcoin: A molten slag heap. Foursquare: Where?

And MOOCs? That’s complicated. The MOOC (massive open, online courses) bubble is rapidly deflating, but there’s also a new narrative emerging. Done well, a MOOC really can revolutionize education—at least within specific formats and disciplines and with a specific goal in mind.

“I absolutely think online learning is perfect for adults,” says Associate Professor of History Matthew Pinsker, who launched what he calls an “OOC” last fall. “Enrollment of 750 was small by MOOC standards, but we were trying to create a liberal-arts experience online.”

The course, Understanding Lincoln, was a partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and was targeted to K-12 educators seeking graduate-level credits, Civil War history buffs and adults interested in personal enrichment. It blended online seminars and in-depth, real-time discussions with virtual field trips and crowd-sourcing projects.

Among the participants were Dickinson students, parents and alumni—many of whom were not only pleasantly surprised but also intellectually challenged and transformed by the experience.

Bob Eskin ’69, who began his MOOC experience with Pinsker’s class, has since found those offered by other colleges and universities lacking. “The Dickinson course definitely was the best structured,” he says, citing the wealth of primary sources, interactive lectures and panel discussions.

“This class was a life-changing experience for me,” adds Sue Segal P’13. “It taught me that I still have a lot to learn about American history, that learning is a lifelong experience, that learning does not have to be driven by a particular degree or career path, that drilling down to original sources offers invaluable lessons in understanding history and that new technological skills can be mastered.”

Pinsker already had a strong track record with online learning through the House Divided project, a resource for K-12 educators that he launched in 2011. “What’s best about online courses is that they can create an open experience,” he explains. “The idea of sharing knowledge is what we’re all about.”

The student projects, Pinsker points out, weren’t just virtual exercises and papers for his eyes only, but genuine scholarship that garnered national attention. There’s a course-produced Web site, Lincoln’s Writings, which earned recognition from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ “Best of the Humanities on the Web”; a special exhibition created for the Google Cultural Institute’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address; and a custom Google map that features 150 of Lincoln’s most teachable documents.

“We’re the first liberal-arts college to be included as an official partner with Google on this endeavor,” says Pinsker. “Most of their other partners are major museums or research universities.”

Pinsker, who is wrapping up a fellowship with the New America Foundation and a residency at the U.S. Army War College, plans to offer the course again this summer. Registration for the course, which runs June 3 to July 16, is open until May 27.

He’s also clear about where and when online education is appropriate. Most online models aren’t suitable for undergraduates, he says, although blended learning—a combination of online and classroom teaching—may be a good approach.

“We’re going to have to experiment with digital resources for the undergraduate experience. Those of us who care about academic integrity, we need to shape that future ourselves,” he says. “We can’t just ignore the technology that’s shifting the ground beneath us. It might be scary and threatening, but there’s no solution to that except engagement.”

Read Sue Segal P’13’s reflections on the course.

Register for the summer 2014 course. (Registration open until May 27, 2014.)

Read more from the spring 2014 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

Published April 22, 2014