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New Yorker on MOOCs

June 10, 2013

In a recent post in my series on the problem on MOOCs, I mentioned how bizarre the multiple choice questions in Gregory Nagy’s course CB22x:  The Ancient Greek Hero have been.  Now, I find from a perceptive in-depth report in the New Yorker that the multiple choice questions are purposely strange, because Nagy has a belief that these sort of questions are deeper than writing essays:

A little later, Nagy read me some questions that the team had devised for CB22x’s first multiple-choice test: “ ‘What is the will of Zeus?’ It says, ‘a) To send the souls of heroes to Hades’ ”—Nagy rippled into laughter—“ ‘b) To cause the Iliad,’ and ‘c) To cause the Trojan War.’ I love this. The best answer is ‘b) To cause the Iliad’—Zeus’ will encompasses the whole of the poem through to its end, or telos.”

He went on, “And then—this is where people really read into the text!—‘Why will Achilles sit the war out in his shelter?’ Because ‘a) He has hurt feelings,’ ‘b) He is angry at Agamemnon,’ and ‘c) A goddess advised him to do so.’ No one will get this.”

The answer is c). In Nagy’s “brick-and-mortar” class, students write essays. But multiple-choice questions are almost as good as essays, Nagy said, because they spot-check participants’ deeper comprehension of the text. The online testing mechanism explains the right response when students miss an answer. And it lets them see the reasoning behind the correct choice when they’re right. “Even in a multiple-choice or a yes-and-no situation, you can actually induce learners to read out of the text, not into the text,” Nagy explained. Thinking about that process helped him to redesign his classroom course. He added, “Our ambition is actually to make the Harvard experience now closer to the MOOC experience.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2013 8:13 am

    Is this assessment accurate?

    “Some draw an analogy to mobile phones, which took several generations to progress from clunky and unreliable to indispensable.”


  1. Postscript on Gregory Nagy’s “The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours” | BLT

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