Teaching, Learning, and Making History

February 25th, 2013 / Advancement

For more than a millennium, the traditional teaching model of universities -- a lecturer, a select group of students, a text -- remained unchanged. Until now. Online courses are turning the whole world into a campus, creating new ways of teaching and learning. Princeton historian Jeremy Adelman is one of the University’s first faculty members to embrace the global classroom.

Professor Jeremy Adelman teaching online course

Photo: Denise Applewhite


Last spring, Princeton partnered with Coursera, an educational technology company that helps universities make courses available online, and Adelman launched a course unlike any he has taught in his 20 years at the University. “World History since 1300” drew 52 undergraduates from Princeton -- and 93,000 students from the rest of the world. “Students need to learn how to learn in a globalized world, to be intellectually cosmopolitan,” said Adelman, who is the Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor in Spanish Civilization and Culture and director of the Council on International Teaching and Research. “Online teaching does this in both its form and its content.”

Classrooms without Boundaries

Instead of reading a book and then attending a lecture, Princeton students watched his pre-recorded lectures when they chose, often in the comfort of their dorms. Adelman noted that their assimilation of the material improved when they could pause and play back the lectures.

The online format allowed him to split each lecture into segments punctuated by interactive quizzes that tested students’ understanding. Actual class time was free for seminar-style discussions guided by Adelman. Once a week, the Princeton students were invited to join in a breakfast dialogue with Adelman and other members of the Princeton faculty on issues related to world history.

At the same time, thousands were taking the course online -- reading the material and following the lectures, posting comments and questions, forming online study groups, and offering views from vastly different cultures and backgrounds. Their contributions brought the subject matter to life, such as when, after a lecture on the Eastern Front in World War II, a woman in St. Petersburg commented that her apartment was still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Nazi siege of 1941.

“The important point is to harness multiple perspectives on the same subject,” Adelman said, “to see that issues of globalization mean different things to different peoples.”

Teach Locally, Learn Globally

Adelman, who received the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton in 2004, found that spending more “active” time with his students helped him to know them better. “A myth of online learning is that students are going to lose time with the faculty,” he said. “But at Princeton, online teaching allows for a more intense relationship.”

“My job is to help students see that Princeton is their portal into the world.”


The University’s venture into the uncharted territory of online education is an experiment that Adelman believes will encourage innovative teaching and learning on campus. But his primary goal is to establish avenues of interaction between his students and the rest of the world.

Jeremy Adelman

Photo: Jon Roemer

“My job is to help students see that Princeton is their portal into the world,” he said. “The University offers them many different gateways, through online courses, through study abroad, through international internships and service, and through the partnerships we are creating with universities around the world. They are thinking and learning globally.”

Adelman also serves as director of the University’s Council for International Teaching and Research, initiating partnerships with peer institutions around the world. In the last year, Princeton entered into strategic agreements with the University of São Paulo, Humboldt University in Berlin, and the University of Tokyo -- expanding research and learning opportunities across disciplines and borders.

In the end, Adelman said, he hopes to see students become genuinely interested in their planet. “I want them to think of the world as a place where they can go out and learn something new, every day, for the rest of their lives. If I can infect them with a bit of my own wanderlust, and they come to my office hours asking me how they can find opportunities to learn abroad, I have been doing my job.”