October 31, 2014

Online Courses and Marketing Fluff: What is an immersive history course?

So, we have a new online course program at my school, "the very first television network-branded online course for credit" as Variety magazine online proclaims. The first course is "United States, 1865 to the Present," and there will be more history courses to come. You can find out more at Here's the badge you can get (for $250), and three units of University of Oklahoma college credit are also available (for $500).

Update: Both options are now discounted.

In the big marketing push for this new online course, the hyperbole is naturally extreme. For example, at the page we are told that the course is like no other, the first of its kind, taking online learning to the next level. In the press release, we are told that the course is unique, groundbreaking, singular, world-class, pioneering, and innovative. Update: A recent marketing email I received describes the course as "unforgettable," so that's another word to add to the fluff list.

The press release also claims that the course is "immersive," as you can see in this screenshot:

Update: You can also hear Professor Gillon claim that the course is "immersive" in this marketing video.

It's no doubt pointless to complain about all the marketing fluff words (unique, world-class, groundbreaking, etc.); that's just how the marketing game is played these days. But a word like "immersive" makes a specific claim about the course design that is both misleading and inappropriate, and it is that wrong use of the word "immersive" that I want to focus on here.

Although the course is closed, there is some sample content provided at the OU website, along with a syllabus. So, let's look at that sample content. Is this course immersive? No, it is not. This is simply a cookie-cutter video-driven course in which students watch videos, read the written materials that accompany the videos, and then participate in discussion boards, just like in online courses ten years ago. The syllabus confirms that the discussion boards are the core component of the class. Discussion board posts count for half of the grade, two short papers (3-5 pages) each count for one-sixth of the grade, and quizzes count for the remaining one-sixth. The discussion board posts will be graded with a rubric, as will the two short papers.

Because there is a discussion board, the marketing people describe the class as dynamic, interactive, engaging, etc. Presumably the course earns the title "rigorous" because of the two short papers. As for the rest of the hyperbole — pioneering, groundbreaking, singular, unique, like no other, etc. — it's just the usual marketing fluff. I'm not really even sure how effective that kind of fluff is anymore, but it certainly seems to be inevitable.

The real problem, though, is this use of the word "immersive." Just because something is online does not make it immersive, although that must be what the marketing people concluded, and no one saw fit to correct their error. What is really discouraging about turning "immersive" into just another marketing fluff word is that immersive learning in history is a very real and very exciting course design option. Consider, for example, Reacting to the Past, an immersive role-playing approach to teaching history that is now being used at over 300 colleges and universities. You can find out more at the Reacting to the Past website, and there is also a new book out by Mark Carnes — Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College — which provides an overview of Reacting to the Past and its great educational potential.

In 2013, I attended a Reacting to the Past regional workshop (for which I paid out of my own pocket — that's how excited I was to learn more about this approach to teaching history), and at that workshop I played the game about India: "Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence, 1945." Players are assigned roles before the game begins, and then they prepare by reading detailed background material about the topic as a whole, along with specific materials for their assigned role. Some roles are historical figures (e.g., Gandhi, Jinnah, Ambedkar), while other roles are generic (I was a member of the Indian National Congress). You stay in character for the duration of the game; some people also stayed in character outside of the game too — I guess you could call that extreme immersion! I had an excellent experience with the game, and if I were teaching history classes, I would definitely be using this Reacting to the Past model.

Unfortunately, despite the claim in the press release, there is nothing immersive about OU's first History-Channel-branded online course. It is just another video-driven, discussion-board-dominated online course like pretty much every other online course being offered by companies like Coursera and the many schools that have jumped on this video-driven online course bandwagon. Yes, I know the marketing people have to sell the course, so naturally they are going to use all the marketing fluff words that they can muster; that's inevitable. Still, I am sad to see that "immersive" is apparently now just another fluff word like "engaging" and "interactive." The kind of immersive history learning promoted by Reacting to the Past is one of the most exciting things I see on the educational landscape right now, something of substance in the midst of all the fluff. So, maybe ... just maybe ... the other courses that OU is planning to develop with the History Channel really will be immersive, going beyond the video-discussion model in order to take advantage of what Reacting to the Past and other innovative programs can offer. And what a great thing that would be!

Update: For a comment from a member of the OU History department, see the write-up in Chronicle of Higher Ed.

Update: There is now also an article in Inside Higher Ed. In that article, we learn that revenue for the course is being split 50-50 between OU and the History Channel. To my way of thinking, that seems really surprising: we certainly would not split revenues 50-50 with the company that provides the textbook for a class. But our relationship with History Channel is different from the relationship we might have with a textbook publisher: this is not just about content, but about branding — so presumably part of the reason why History Channel is able to make a claim for half of the revenue is that enrollment in the class will be driven by the marketing boost of the History Channel brand. Anyway, there is clearly much worth discussing; I added a couple of comments at the article's discussion space since we don't really have a discussion space of our own at OU. We offer online courses, yes, but not an online discussion space to talk about those courses!

Update... And I guess this will be the final update to this post. The course is no longer being offered, and it has been effectively erased from the web as if it never happened. What did we learn? And how much did we earn/spend? Well, I have no idea, since we're just pretending it never happened. Burn After Reading pretty much sums it up: