This afternoon at NYU, I went to a seminar on media archeology and digital humanities. I had thought that these two areas were new to me, but it turns out that I have been doing alot of that work already without having realized it. There were some very enlightening discussions at the seminar, but I’ll save those points for another day, another post.
After we adjourned for the day, a graduate student in the English department told me about an educational television series NYU had helped produced in the 1950s called Sunrise Semester. It was where television viewers could take classes from NYU faculty with broadcasts scheduled as early as 6:00 AM, and the program ran from the 1950s to 1980s, he said. This format of "telecourse" was not as rare as most people might think. Most notably, NBC produced and aired The Continental Classroom from 1955 to 1963, if memory serves, as an early-morning nationally televised program. Unlike Sunrise Semester on CBS, many different universities participated.
The "telecourse" is back with the push for Massively Open Online Courses and ways to "disrupt" traditional universities with technology. NYU shares its courses for free through its OpenEd initiative. Some subjects include sociology, biology, and mathematics. A professional crew records lectures throughout the semester and posts them on YouTube, iTunesU, and its own NYU Stream platform. Students anywhere can "take" the course, although they do not yet receive credit.
Here’s one example from Cyrus Patel’s American Literature course.
The two programs are more different than I would have thought. For one thing, the primary audience for the OpenEd example is the classroom and the paying customers attending. In the case of the Sunrise Semester, the professor speaks to the camera in direct address. There is a fair amount of editing in the Sunrise example, especially compared to OpenEd, although it does not leverage the visual form by showing slides or other illustrations as we see in the latter course.
It is hard to make generalizations about a single episode of a television program with a decades-long run, but that is why we need media archeology to uncover these media artifacts. By looking at how universities were using new technologies, such as television in the 1950s, we can better gauge the possibility of something like MOOCs replacing the traditional university.