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Heroic Effort: Comparing Two Classical Studies MOOCs

The number and variety of MOOC’s available is always enticing. I started out last year taking E-Learning and Digital Cultures from the University of Edinburgh, because, as a teacher myself, I was curious about the development of online learning. Next I tried Introduction to Philosophy, so I could support my daughter when she studies that subject at Lycée .

Heroic Effort classical studies MOOC 2

Jakob Jordaens via Wikimedia

After that, I got the bug and have explored several more MOOCs, usually relying on recommendations from my fellow students in the discussion forums. The philosophy class led me to look into to two classical studies MOOCs earlier this year; Coursera’s Greek and Roman Mythology from the University of Pennsylvania started in April, and edX’s The Ancient Greek Hero from Harvard started in March (and was previously reviewed on this site by Jonathan Haber).

Undecided as to which one I would prefer, I started both of them. There was also some overlap in the reading lists, so I anticipated being able to keep up with the reading requirements of each. I hope my experience comparing the Coursera and edX classes on this subject will help you decide which classical studies MOOC is for you.

Greek and Roman Mythology

The focus of the Greek and Roman Mythology MOOC is “the myths of ancient Greece and Rome as a way of exploring the nature of myth and the function it plays for individuals, societies and nations.” The video lectures from Professor Peter Struck were lively, engaging, informative and sometimes very amusing.

The course is split into ten weeks. Each week assigned quite a lot of reading, Struck’s recorded lecture analyzing that reading and a quiz to ensure the week’s program had been absorbed. The course required only one essay, marked by peer review. I was very glad of this as I found the workload quite heavy.

To give you some idea of the time required, the readings on average took me five hours, the videos lasted an hour and a half to two hours and the quiz took a further hour. The quiz could be done in a shorter time if you have a good memory and don’t have to go back to look things up. It was also possible to retake the quiz up to ten times if needed. For the certificate you needed an average of 80% or higher on the quizzes and one completed essay.

There were also five “screenside chats.” These were webcam interviews where the students could send in questions for Struck and his team to answer. If you were watching the chat live then you could also tweet in questions. It made the course seem a lot more interactive than some other MOOCs. The team were also very much engaged in the forum and often answered questions raised and solved technical problems. I appreciated the level of involvement and commitment of the team as some MOOCs can feel very distant and impersonal.

The required reading is all available freely for download and to use on e-readers if you don’t mind which version you read, but Struck recommended certain paid versions. I particularly liked the Robert Fagles version of Homer’s Odyssey, which I would recommend over the free Kindle version. I found it online but not downloadable, which was a bit difficult to read but much more enjoyable. These paid versions of the texts are not imposed, but if you want to follow the page numbers and the quotations on the videos, then they are useful.

As mentioned above, I found the videos very informative. Struck summarized the week’s reading, aided by background images of paintings, statues, photographs, ancient texts and maps. He spoke about the authors, putting them into the context of their writing. The history of the era was fascinating and really helped me to understand the stories more deeply. By highlighting various parts of Greek and Roman culture at the time the stories were written, Struck gave us a vivid and colorful picture of society in that period. We also learned about how plays were put on in ancient Greece and Rome. From his explanations, the texts and the photos of the amphitheaters you get a very clear picture of what the ancient audiences would see.

Another feature of the course I appreciated was tying the myths and legends together. Mapping the names of Greek to Roman gods and then exploring the development of each was fascinating. We also followed other characters from one text to another and explored similarities, differences and continuities in attitudes over different times and by different authors.

I found this MOOC to be very enjoyable. I learned some history and read some wonderful texts. I learned about some wonderful pieces of art including oil paintings, statues and vase paintings. I engaged in the lively forum discussions and sent some questions to the team for consideration. This class was the closest to being there that I have come across so far. I don’t consider myself terribly academic, and I found all the information fascinating and quite to my level.


The Ancient Greek Hero

The Ancient Greek Hero MOOC from edX “takes a close look at the human condition, as viewed through the lens of classical Greek civilization; the basic organizing principle is an objective study of a model of humanity, the Hero.” The course is run by Professor Gregory Nagy with input from Dr. Leonard Muellner, Claudia Filos and some others.

The course is split into 25 hours. Although the course text is called The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, there is an hour zero. For each hour, students are assigned some fast reading and some slow reading (explained at the beginning of the course), a set of videos from Nagy and his team, a question set and a close reading exercise. There is also an optional discussion question for each of the “hours” on the forum. Planning my time was more difficult with this course as the syllabus stated the beginning and end date but not how the course would roll out. It started on March 13 and was planned to finish on June 26, but this changed and the last “hour” was posted on July 19.

Time planning was also very difficult as the readings didn’t seem to be evenly spaced. Calling each of the steps an “hour” is a little deceptive, as the course notes tell you to expect between three and five hours per module. The readings for an hour involved several texts and scrolls. These alone took me on average two hours. Then the video presentations were over an hour for each module. The question sets and close reading exercises took more time, and I didn’t participate in the discussion due to lack of time.

The staff on this course participated in the forum, and the discussion was lively and varied. Although initially the forum posts were difficult to follow, the staff took this on board, and it improved substantially by the end. Although I didn’t feel they were as involved as the staff in the Coursera course, they certainly listened to the students and altered things accordingly.

The required reading for is all contained within the course website. The central text, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, was written by Nagy and is based on the course that he taught at Harvard. There is also a source book containing all the readings, which were were translated by Professor Nagy or revised by him and his team from another translation. The book is downloadable, but I have not managed to upload it to my Kindle.

I didn’t find the translations as enjoyable in these versions as I did in the other course. If I can give you an example, here is an excerpt from The Odyssey:

[5] struggling to merit [arnusthai] the saving of his own life [psūkhē] and his own homecoming [nostos] as well as the homecoming of his comrades [hetairoi]. 6 But do what he might he could not save his comrades [hetairoi], even though he very much wanted to. 7 For they perished through their own deeds of sheer recklessness,8 disconnected [nēpioi] as they were, because of what they did to the cattle of the sun-god Helios.9 They ate them. So the god [Helios] deprived them of their day of homecoming [nostimon].

The inclusion of the many footnotes and the original Greek in brackets was very distracting for me. However, there was the advantage of having all the required texts for the course in the same place.

I also had difficulty with “slow reading,” something I think would benefit me in absorbing texts but not something that came easily to me. This course focuses far more on the meaning of the words within the text and how they relate to the story. It is a far more academic course in this respect. Nagy would focus on one word and explore its meaning throughout the texts for that week. We would see examples of the word in the text and then in art through vase paintings of ancient poems.

The themes were linked to ancient and modern customs and the videos included customs in many different cultures that survive from ancient times. For example, Nagy and his team discussed Maori and Oriental art and customs and related them to these texts. I found some of these to be fascinating.

Comparing these classical studies MOOCs

The Ancient Greek Hero was very different from Greek and Roman Mythology but no less interesting. It challenged me academically and made me think very differently about some of the texts we read. It was interesting to see old customs and practices still alive in a modern context.

I found the focus on the meaning of words rather irritating and I would have liked to know more about the authors and their lives and times. This is a personal preference, and I think if you wish for a deeper involvement into the meanings of the ancient texts then you would get a lot out of this course.

In conclusion, there is no reason why someone shouldn’t do both of these courses as they have very different focuses despite covering some of the same texts. If you want a light introduction to these classics with some details about Greek and Roman life then Greek and Roman Mythology is for you. For a more in-depth look at the language and the meaning of heroes in ancient times, then take the edX course.


Louise Taylor (2 Posts)

Louise Taylor is a coach in “business language and culture” living and working in France. She helps French business people to communicate with their international colleagues and to appreciate the cultural differences that they might encounter. She fund raises for Room to Read to give books to children everywhere and for Water Aid to provide all world citizens with clean, safe, drinking water.