Harvard edX MOOC: Robert Darnton’s The History of the Book


I have never been in favor of pushing online teaching in the humanities, but the Harvard edX series makes the most of blending digital technology and humanities teaching.

Readers may be particularly interested in Robert Darnton’s course, which begins this week, “The History of the Book in 17th- and 18th-Century Europe.”

Gregory Nagy’s “The Greek Hero in 24 Hours” is superb, despite the requirement that epics be read in specific translations available only electronically. (A cumbersome 900-page print-out option only inspires desire for separate printed texts).  That said, Nagy’s course is fantastic, and Robert Darnton’s course looks equally valuable.

The Harvard/MIT Edx platform for free online courses rolled out in 2012, not without controversy. as this and other articles suggest.  The courses are making me think–both about their subject matter and about online teaching.


2 Responses to “Harvard edX MOOC: Robert Darnton’s The History of the Book”

  1. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Thanks for this posting, Anna. I would be interested in hearing what others see as the audience(s) for these courses. Are they primarily continuing ed–opportunities for life-long learning? They remind me of some continuing ed I took while working and before returning to grad school–with the convenience of completing at one’s pace and without traveling. (I remember fondly a wonderful course on Joyce’s Ulysses and Dublin by a professor from Trinity College, Dublin, offered one summer at Georgetown).

    Darnton’s new offering seems to be a module of a series devoted to a broader series on “The Book” with contributions from various professors. Leah Price’s The Book: Book Sleuthing: What 19th-Century Books Can Tell Us About the Rise of the Reading Public?” course serves as perhaps the next module. While Price’s fascinating module deals with a period beyond EMOB’s historical focus, its focus on investigative historical methods is certainly relevant to our time. I suspect Ann Blair will soon be offering a module devoted to the Renaissance book.

    I already use many online resources (videos, podcasts, online exercises, and so forth) in both my face-to-face. hybrid, and online book history courses. At the moment, the Terms of Service agreement restricts (understandably) the content to the individual, enrolled user for personal use only in the context of the course. Yet, down the road, edX seems to be envisioning the possibility of broader collaboration:

    We aim to make much of the edX course content available under more open license terms that will help create a vibrant ecosystem of contributors and further edX’s goal of making education accessible and affordable to the world.

    This potential for collaboration across universities, libraries, and independent scholars could be a fascinating development in online offerings and the harnessing of technology for wide educational aims. Yet, for the present these offerings are focused more on one (edX) to many. Even the YouTube trailer for the book series courses notes that the video is “unlisted” and thus requests that one give thought before sharing.


  2. Anna Battigelli Says:

    As far as audience goes, “The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours” is supposed to be for anyone, and in theory it is. In fact, however, it’s a demanding and highly specialized course. One thing that defines it is its superb organization and scholarship. I’m sure this scholarship and organization will be true of Darnton’s course as well–as the beautiful trailer makes clear. Darnton’s course labels itself as requiring half the hours per week as the “Greek Hero” course.

    These two courses are designed by master teachers supported by gifted technicians, teams of colleagues, and magnificent resources. They force us to reconsider assumptions about the Internet as a demotic mode. So, yes, the mode is “one to many,” if I understand your use of that phrase.

    I too would love to hear about other people’s experience with such courses.


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