When budget woes threatened faculty reductions in the anthropology department at Kansas State University, one professor decided to address the shortfall by teaching differently.
The professor, Michael Wesch, has a long track record of teaching innovation. He’s won a national teacher-of-the-year award and his viral videos about education earned him praise from Wired magazine. Throughout his career, Wesch has relentlessly refreshed his approach, at one point admitting that some of the tech he’s infused in his teaching wasn’t working and trying a reboot.
His latest teaching experiment continues his attempt to reach students in new ways. But it also emerged from what he calls a “dark time” at his university, when budget cuts seemed certain to reduce the number of professors in his department, thus restricting the courses it could offer.
“We’ve had a lot of budget issues,” he says. “It just feels like our footing is kind of shaky.”
So he and a colleague, Ryan Klataske, hatched a plan—one that at first seems counterintuitive.
They would raise enrollment in their department by offering a free and completely open online course in introductory anthropology that anyone can view, and that professors around the world would be encouraged to grab and offer themselves. If students wanted to take the course for credit, they could pay Kansas State the regular tuition price and take it through the university’s Global Campus.
Duane Dunn, associate dean for program development and administration in the Global Campus, admitted that he was a bit skeptical at first. “I asked: ‘Why would we give it away instead of getting them to enroll?’” he remembers.
Plus, it sounded a lot like a MOOC (short for “massive open online courses”)—free courses designed for thousands of students that were all the rage a few years ago, but which today are seen as having fallen far short of the hype.
But there are some important differences in what Wesch wanted to do. “It’s a new kind of MOOC, and it’s a new kind of philosophy,” he says.
One way he looks at the online course is as a competitor to commercial textbooks, but one that is updated and enhanced by a community of professors. For instructors who want to adopt it, he provides a password to a library of materials, and even plans to add the slides he uses for the in-person version of the course. And he encourages those professors to upload their own materials as well. So far about seven courses at other colleges have adopted the site so far for their courses.
And for students, Wesch organized the course not as a series of traditional assignments, but as a set of 10 challenges that introduce basic concepts of anthropology. One challenge tasks students with talking to a stranger, and then posting a picture of the person on Instagram. Another challenge is “try something new,” and suggests starting to learn a new instrument and teaming up with some friends to start a 28-day band—and posting an update on Instagram or another social media platform every day for a month.
The emphasis is on giving the online students an experience, and to make them observe the people and places around them more carefully, and with fresh eyes. As Wesch explains in an introductory video, “You can’t think your way into a new way of living, you have to live your way into a new way of thinking.”
And by encouraging those who try the challenges—whether they are enrolled in the course or not—to put hashtags with the course name on their Instagram and social-media posts, the professor hopes that participants will feel like they are part of something larger than a typical course.
In fact, Wesch hopes that his course website may become a kind of media site of its own, hosting the best of student photos, videos and other evidence of completing the life challenges he presents. “It could essentially be a media platform—kind of like Vox or Buzzfeed,” he says.
The online course offered through the Global Campus doesn’t need to be massive. Even relatively small enrollments brings in enough revenue to satisfy the central administration. And a significant chunk of the tuition from the course goes back to the anthropology department to boost its budget.
All the social-media activity around the free content is essentially the marketing plan. As Dunn explains, “It gives students—whether they enroll or not—an exposure to Kansas State University and Michael Wesch, and say to themselves, ‘I want to learn more from him.’”
A Few Adjustments, and an Arrest
The Global Campus decided to greenlight the project, and it gave Wesch a grant of about $50,000 to get the course started.
Wesch hired a consultant he knew to build a website for the course, so that it wouldn’t look like a typical college site. He also used some of the money to send his teaching assistants to cities around the globe.
“We started with the idea of, ‘what does anthropology look like when it’s not tied down to a classroom,’” says Wesch. “It should take place out in the world and actually engage with people all over the world.”
So rather than have TAs based at the campus in Manhattan, Kansas, Wesch flew them to various continents and tasked them with shooting videos for the course, essentially filming themselves doing the challenges required for the course and exposing students to a range of cultures in the process.
“The main thing we didn’t want was to be the professor doing it,” Wesch says of the videos from foreign countries. “We really want to open the door to students and say, ‘This is someone like you, who just finished this class.’”
That aspect of the course, however, had only “mixed results,” according to Wesch.
Because the professors worried a bit about how effective the materials created by the TAs would be as teaching supplements, they made watching them optional for the students. As a result, only about half of the officially-enrolled students even viewed them. “The other half are like, ‘This isn’t on the exam so I’m not going to do this.’”
And actually filming and sending back educational video, while also being available for video meetings with students, turned out to be a logistical and emotional challenge for some of the students. One TA flew back early, Wesch says, because of “culture shock issues and mental health issues.”
Another, Garrett Wilkinson, was among those who thrived roaming Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi to serve as a TA for the course.
While doing the challenge of talking to strangers, Wilkinson met a young man in Malawi and asked him if he could shadow him for a couple of days. The resulting journey took him to the man’s home, and to a local soccer match that drew about 1,000 spectators. “I think we had a pretty good interview, and I know it struck a chord for a lot of students,” says Wilkinson. “A lot of students don’t think a lot about deep poverty or life outside the United States.”
Finding reliable internet connections to send back his videos was sometimes an issue, though. And at one point Wilkinson was arrested and had to enlist help from the U.S. embassy to get him out.
Wilkinson, who is about to start graduate school in London to study public health, took the incident in stride, and said that the best part of the experience was getting emails from people around the world who had seen his videos on YouTube and said he inspired them.
“I was accidentally teaching way more people than I thought I was,” he says.
Wesch says he has rethought the TA approach, and now keeps a few of the assistants back on campus to help with logistics and grading. But he is committed to continuing to offer at least some travel grants to give future TAs the experience and opportunity, instead of just showing the same videos to students each year. “The world’s always changing, so it wouldn’t be enough to have Garrett’s video just recycled for the next 5 or 10 years,” the professor argues.
Enrollments, Exposure and Politics
The online course has now run eight times, and has enrolled more than 350 paying students. The next session of the course starts next week.
That has allowed the department to cover the costs of about one-and-a-half faculty positions (or “faculty lines,” as they are called in academic speak).
That’s good news to Wesch, but he still worries about the long-term sustainability of their plan. “It’s a tentative success—we have to continue to generate that money year to year,” he says. “If the enrollment doesn’t hit a certain number, then the lines we’ve created are in jeopardy.”
And to some students, this experiential course may not seem academic enough. As one anonymous student of an in-person class by Wesch put it on RateMyProfessors, “There is no content to this class, and it is all about him.”
But the site is succeeding in bringing attention to anthropology, and the university.
A video that Wesch made about the history of race and zoning laws in Kansas City has been viewed more than a million times on Facebook since it was posted last summer. In the video, Wesch and a colleague show the stark differences in race and resources on the two sides of Troost Avenue in Kansas City, the historical dividing line between the rich and poor in the city.
In today’s political environment, though, not all of the exposure has been positive. Wesch says that after the video went viral, it attracted a backlash on some right-leaning discussion sites, where people posted what he calls “diatribes against the video.”
“They were mostly assuming that we were implying that liberal policies are what could fix the problems,” he says. “We didn’t make any policy recommendations.”
He says the experience was a wake-up call, and he is now working harder to introduce students to a diversity of political viewpoints in the course materials.
"Even though I tried to make it palatable to anybody from any political background, I had missed the mark,” he says. “I was not well educated in alternative narratives to why segregations exists.”
He says he started reading more conservative intellectuals, such as Jonathan Haidt, and began worrying that other professors in anthropology weren’t caught up on arguments from viewpoints they didn’t agree with.
“We pretend that the reason why is that we’re just right,” he says. “Whether we’re right or not is one question, but a very important one is, ‘What’s going to work?’ and ‘What is effective teaching?” he says. “If you want to talk about structural racism, you’re not going to get very far if you’re immediately putting people off with the way that you’re talking about it.”
It was an unexpected result of trying to make an anthropology textbook accessible for as many people as possible. “I think I’m a better teacher for it,” he says.
For the Global Campus, one question now is whether the model could work for other courses. The trend these days is to focus on building full-degree programs online rather than stand-alone courses, since it can be hard to spread the word and attract paying students unless there is a clear credential to aim for.
Mr. Dunn, of the Global Campus, says the subject matter needs to have popular appeal. “An agronomy class, for instance, may not have the same ability to do these things,” he says. But an instructor in the music department, for instance, has suggested offering a music appreciation course about great composers following a similar model.