Over the past year, many universities have started experimenting with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Free of charge, these courses offer interesting video lectures and readings and often invite the ‘student’ to take part in online discussions. In the field of Egyptology, the universities of Manchester and Liverpool have taken the lead. Two of the courses given recently I will here examine in more detail.
Superpowers of the Ancient World: the Near East
University of Liverpool
Dr Glenn Godenho
4 weeks starting 28th September 2015
This course focused on the Late Bronze Age in the Near East, when different superpowers succeeded each other on the international stage, and engaged in warfare, trade and diplomacy. Combining short videos featuring a range of experts in the field with short texts, maps and quizzes, an introduction is given to the four major players during this period. In week one, Egypt is the focus, discussing the expelling of the Hyksos which marked the beginning of the New Kingdom, and giving a summary introduction to hieroglyphs. In week two, it’s the turn of Syria-Palestine, explaining the battle of Megiddo and the general workings of cuneiform. Week three makes room for Mitanni and the Amarna letters, and allows you to listen to a surprising Hurrian song. Week four ultimately treats the Hittites, with the battle of Kadesh, a talk on military technology, and the decipherment of the Hittite language. In each week, a specific item of material culture is discussed, such as a soldier’s statue and dagger, and the famous Ramesses girlde housed in the Liverpool World Museum.
Positive about the Superpowers course is its charismatic presenter, Dr Glenn Godenho. Participants of the course were very commited and commented heavily on the discussion forums. The way the course is set up gives a real sense of progress, although actual credit is not obtained. Quizzes were easy, but a good way to test the acquired knowledge, with links back to the material in which the answers could be found. Many links to online content are provided, although the course could do with more readings, especially since scholarly articles are increasingly becoming available online. The short videos make the course attractive, giving room to many different experts. Although some videos could have done with a little more depth, and the interesting language component could have been enlarged. The comparisons with contemporary history were often a bit far-fetched.
The course contains one peer-reviewed assignment, focusing on the death and possible murder of Tutankhamun. Unfortunately, this assignment doesn’t seem to count towards credit and a statement of participation can simply be purchased at the end. All in all, the course covers an interesting area and time period, which can be a bit complicated to understand for those new to the field, especially with all the names of Egyptian, Hittite and Mitanni rulers. Nevertheless, more reading material and interpretation by experts (rather than by the students themselves) could have given this course more body.
The course material seems to remain available after finishing the course. There is also an active Facebook group. The course will reprise somewhere during 2016.
Ancient Egypt: A history in six objects
University of Manchester
Dr Joyce Tyldesley, Dr Glenn Godenho and Dr Campbell Price
Six weeks starting 26th October 2015
Rather than focusing on a specific area and time period, this course is a fleshy introduction to Egyptian material culture. With a cast of three experts and the storerooms of the Manchester Museum at their disposal, this course guides the participant in six weeks through the entire history of Egyptian civilization. Starting in week one, the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Period are covered, featuring a Naqada II pot. Running on through the Old Kingdom (false door), Middle Kingdom (private statue), New Kingdom (Ramesside column), Third Intermediate and Late Period (cartonnage mask), and finally the Greco-Roman Period (Bes figurine), each week an object from the museum is central. Every period is treated through a chronology, map, historical overview, lecture videos, object videos, a quiz and an ‘activity’ which is a (voluntary) post in the forum. The six quizzes and one peer-reviewed assignment count towards the end credits, and these have a deadline. This lends to the feeling of following an actual course. However, as each quiz can be taken 10 times (and there’s nothing a little Googling can’t fix), commitment rather than knowledge is reflected in the final grade. For an online course, this should be fine.
This course contains more reading material and actual lectures than the Liverpool course, which I personally prefer. It gives extra links to the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, which is a great resource for aspiring Egyptologists. The 3D models of objects, although not rendered at top quality, are a nice touch. The video lectures are informative (five per week), with a good cast of experts, who are not natural born tv personalities but adorable nonetheless. All in all, this course is well fleshed-out and makes good use of the objects in the Manchester Museum. Unfortunately, the course material stops being available after a while (but a reprise can be expected).
See also other free Manchester Egyptology courses. There is currently a symposium about aspects of life in ancient Egypt, and a course on Warfare and weapons in ancient Egypt, starting 11th January 2016.