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Innovative humanities MOOC, “Visualizing Japan,” nominated for the Japan Prize

In a Q&A, course co-founder Professor Shigeru Miyagawa discusses his unique online course and its impact on digital education.
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Shigeru Miyagawa, professor of linguistics and the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT
Shigeru Miyagawa, professor of linguistics and the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT
Photo: Melanie Gonick/MIT

Shigeru Miyagawa, professor of linguistics and the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT, has earned a reputation as a leading voice for the use of technology and digital innovation in education. Since the earliest days of the Web, he has worked to realize its potential as a tool for teaching and learning, and he was a member of the faculty committee that recommended the creation of MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) in 2001. He has continued to advocate for the open sharing of educational materials, for which he was honored with the 2012 President's Award for OpenCourseWare Excellence.

In 2002, Miyagawa and MIT professor of history (now emeritus) John Dower co-founded “Visualizing Cultures,” a groundbreaking program that leverages digital technology to support image-drive research. Most recently, “Visualizing Japan” — a massive open online course (MOOC) inspired by “Visualizing Cultures,” co-taught by Miyagawa, Dower, Harvard University historian Andrew Gordon, and Duke University art historian Gennifer Weisenfeld — has been nominated for the Japan Prize in Education Media. This is a prestigious international prize awarded to educational broadcast and digital media programs selected from around the world.

SHASS Communications spoke recently with Professor Miyagawa about “Visualizing Japan” and his experience with MOOCs.

Q: This course grew out of the pioneering  “Visualizing Cultures” project and website, which you founded 2002 with MIT Professor Emeritus John Dower. Can you tell us a little about what led you to transform that project into a MOOC?

A: Beyond the tremendous excitement of sharing this material with students all over the world, I saw the MOOC as a great way to collaborate across institutions: MIT, Harvard, and a professor from Duke pitched in. The University of Tokyo joined us by producing two companion MOOCs.

This fall, we are offering “Visualizing Japan” and the two UTokyo MOOCs as an xSeries from edX. Along with the faculty, we had a terrific collaboration between MITx and HarvardX. HarvardX produced the videos in their amazing Hauser video facility. MITx helped us to develop a suite of assessments that mimic the way historians handle visual material.

The earlier project, “Visualizing Cultures,” from which we drew material and methodology for the MOOC, also was made possible through collaborations of faculty and museums. “Visualizing Cultures” has units by over 10 scholars from a variety of institutions, including John Dower of MIT, Andy Gordon of Harvard, and Gennifer Weisenfeld of Duke, who are the principal faculty for the MOOC. Beyond the scholars, we work with some 200 museums and collections, each institution agreeing to our use of visuals under a Creative Commons license, which allows learners to freely download, copy, distribute, and alter the images.

Q: From your experience with “Visualizing Japan,” what are the challenges and benefits of teaching a humanities course as a MOOC? Are there any discoveries from the course that you would recommend for other humanities MOOCs? What about this course do you think has made it translate so successfully into the MOOC format?

A: One component of the MOOC that I wasn't sure about was the discussion forum. Would anyone participate? Will the discussion be civil and constructive?

I got a glimpse of what the forum was going to be like on the first day of the MOOC, when we put up an image from a later lesson, a 1930s image of the Ginza area in Tokyo. We asked the learners to comment on what aspects of modernity they see in the image. 804 learners put up comments, many consisting of a long and thoughtful paragraph, and also reacted to others' postings. It was a remarkable thing to see. The forum was active right up to the end of the course. One challenge for MOOCs is the drop off — sometimes precipitous — in enrollment. We started with 3,000, and 1,172 completed the course. This is actually a high completion rate for a MOOC.

One clear trend that a student taking my residential class that used the MOOC identified is that the more that a learner participates in the discussion forum, the more likely that she is likely to stay with the course. In the beginning, each learner averaged two postings, but by the end, each learner was putting up more than 10 postings, showing that the most active participants completed the course.

The use of visuals is central to “Visualizing Japan,” and we developed a pedagogy for use of visuals as primary source during the 15 years that John Dower and I, with Ellen Sebring, worked on the earlier project, “Visualizing Cultures.” Many learners in the MOOC pointed out that visuals made the content more accessible. The visuals also made it possible to develop machine graded assessments that went beyond the standard multiple choice quizzes, something that Ellen Sebring spearheaded.

Q: In what ways do you think digital tools like MOOCs are shaping or will shape the future of education? Is there anything you learned from producing this MOOC that you’ll bring back to the classroom with you?

A: MOOCs provide a rare opportunity for people of all ages from countries across the globe to study together using high quality instructional material. On the first day of the MOOC, a learner introduced himself as a 15-year-old being homeschooled. This was his 16th MOOC, and his first humanities MOOC. He had taken 15 STEM MOOCs before that.

He was so taken by the course that we appointed him as a community [teaching assistant], an honor bestowed on learners who show a commitment to the course and a high standard of community interaction. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so I invited him to visit my MIT class that was using the MOOC. He said that his high school education consisted mostly of studying with MOOCs.  He was accepted into the Class of 2019 at MIT and is now a freshman.

I teach a residential class at MIT under the same title, “Visualizing Japan,” and use the MOOC as the primary textual material. Last year was the first time to teach it, so I had just nine students. That contrasted with 3,000 students in the MOOC running simultaneously. Right away, I noticed that something was different. The students were assigned the video lectures from the MOOC to study. When they came into the class, they appeared to have retained the information from the video lectures much more than when I assigned reading.

As a result, instead of doing a traditional lecture with PowerPoint, I peppered them questions about the content of the lectures. I hardly used the PowerPoints I prepared. This so-called flipped class, where students study the lecture ahead of time, and in class we engage in active discussion, became the new format for the class. Most of the classes during the semester were of this type, although I did have several traditional lecture-style classes.

One student doing research on the use of MOOC material for classroom teaching measured the amount of time that the teacher (me) was speaking and also the students. He found that during the traditional lecture class, I was speaking 80 percent and students 20 percent. But in the flipped class format, it was 50-50. And I could tell the difference. The students were much more attentive in the flipped class, more engaged. MIT News did a nice story about it.

This semester, I have 17 students, which is nearly the limit for a communication-intensive course. I began the course in the flipped format. In the first week of the semester, a large contingent of faculty and students from a Japanese university visited the class. They were surprised by this way of teaching, and afterwards several came up to me and asked how these students knew so much about Japanese history when it was only the first week.

Q: Two elements that tie “Visualizing Japan” together are its grounding in visual archives and the effort to challenge popular stereotypes about pre-war Japan. Is there something particular about visual media that makes them a more effective way to challenge false ideas?

A: Visuals are a wonderful way to teach analytical skills, collaboration, and cultural sensitivity. We often team up students to work with visuals, and each member will come up with a different interpretation, which leads to a lively debate about the meaning of the visual. To defend one's position requires a close reading of the visual and an understanding of the cultural context. Visuals challenge and often dissipate stereotypes. The unit on the Hibiya Riot is a good example. The 1905 incident was the first social protest in the era of imperial democracy. It undermines the stereotype of the Japanese as polite and obedient.

The learners today have access to a limitless number of visuals, many inaccessible until recently. This means that students can get hold of a heretofore inaccessible visual, analyze it, and discover something new and exciting. This is rare in an undergraduate class — for a student to make a discovery no one else has made before.


Story by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Staff Writer: Daniel Evans Pritchard


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