Public universities in Italy recently received funding from the government to encourage innovation, particularly in the use of technologies and e-learning. At Università Ca’ Foscari in Venice, Professor Paola Corò successfully applied for funding to convert her face-to-face course in Babylonian Cuneiform to blended learning, as well develop a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) as an introduction to the topic. Cuneiform signs are the basis of a writing system, using logograms and syllables rather than an alphabet, which was used for about 3,000 years and became extinct by the second century.
Although Professor Corò’s face-to-face class received good reviews from the students, they often commented it was challenging as they had no background in or preparation for the course content. In response, Professor Corò developed a Massive Open Online Course that could be used by the students and others interested in the topic.
In the face-to-face class, students listened to the lectures but did not always work with the actual writing system. As all marks were awarded through the final exam, students were not really motivated to complete day-by-day assignments. In response to this need for enhanced student participation, a blended learning course was designed.
The MOOC is designed as an introduction to the cuneiform writing system, how it works and how to decipher the signs. It starts with a video on practicalities – and then ties cuneiform to the inexplicable symbols people see in museum exhibits, exploring who wrote them and what they mean. After some background on the origins and evolution of the system, students are given video exercises on actually deciphering the symbols, using a “dictionary”. A video lab then demonstrates how they can make clay tablets and challenge them to write their own names in Cuneiform, using both the symbol system and the syllables found in the language. The course includes a discussion forum, on which she encourages the students to answer each others’ questions.
The Cuneiform Writing MOOC was first offered through Università Ca’ Foscari, and then became one of the first offered on EduOpen, a network of 15 Italian academic institutions now offering free access to more than 60 MOOCs. Some of the MOOCs can result in credits through paying a fee and taking an exam with the partner university. Students completing any of the MOOCs, including the one on Cuneiform Writing, receive attendance certificates and open badges signifying achievements.
The blended learning model Professor Corò adopted combines four hours of face-to-face class each week, and two hours of online, with the online time structured as practice. The online activities are part of the evaluation, so students work with the language more in depth than they did in the previous face-to-face class structure.
Benefits and Outcomes
The MOOC about cuneiform has been offered three times now, bringing in over 400 registrants, far beyond the usual 15-30 students in the face-to-face or blended class. MOOC students cite “curiosity” as the main reason for their enrolment, both about cuneiform writing and MOOCs. Not only did they register, but about 30% completed the course and many have asked for a next level MOOC on grammar.
Professor Corò expected the prospective students for her course to register, but also found several women working in the home, an astronomer, an engineer, and many other interested individuals in Italy and beyond. The MOOC was offered in Italian.
The blended learning structure in the credit course was very successful according to Professor Corò as she sees “that the students really learn now. I would never go back to a traditional class with this content”. Students attend the lab sessions more frequently as “they get into the discipline and want to learn more”. They are also more likely to contact her directly for help as the online activities show them what they need to know and “they realize much sooner that they need help”. Some students drop the course as the class requires more daily work than they are willing to do, but all those who remain pass the course more easily.
Adult students were not the only ones to benefit from learning about cuneiform writing. As an activity for the European Day of Research when universities celebrate their capacities and achievements, Professor Corò presented very popular workshops at which children learned how to write their names using cuneiforms on the icing of cookies, especially made for the purpose by a local biscuit factory.
The Università Ca’ Foscari funded two streams of projects to receive the funding for technological development. One stream focused on introductory topics, such as mathematics, that students could use for preparation and review. Others were to highlight specific areas of expertise at the University, such as a course on Anglo-American literature that looked at how much you can learn from a book in its first ten lines.
Challenges and Enhancements
When the course was first changed to blended learning delivery three years ago, there was considerable resistance as the “students did not want to move to online, to new things”, according to Professor Corò. However, word spread about the course – and the MOOC - and students are more open and accepting of the new format. But students still find working with the Cuneiform writing online is more difficult than reading a book about it. Professor Corò agrees that students now have to do more on their own to pass, but they pass with higher marks.
The experience with MOOCs was positive for the university and the faculty as they reached students around the world. Some of the MOOCs, including one on Egyptology, were restructured into full credit courses.
For Further Information
Researcher in Assyriology
Department of Humanities
Università Ca' Foscari