I signed up for an edX MOOC thinking it was going to focus on that period of history between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Middle Ages. It turned out to be a survey course that began with ancient Mesopotamia and North Africa and didn’t get to Europe’s Middle Ages until more than two thirds through the course.

How did that mis-take happen?

Ever since Kahneman coined the twin concepts of Fast and Slow Thinking, I’ve been watching mind at work in that light. What does fast thinking look like, when do we do it, and to what extent might its outcomes be maladaptive?

What was I thinking, when I signed up for 600 years of history and got almost 5000 years instead (3300 BC – 1500 AD)?

How did that happen? What was I prospecting for? What was I remembering to remember to look for?

My original intent was to study edX itself, versus Coursera and Khan Academy, because that’s an important part of my work. So my Prospective Thinking was thinking, “what can I find on edX that would give me the opportunity to test drive the edTech it’s reputedly deploying?”

That is to say, I was distracted by extra-curricular motives.

I’d heard a rumor that MIT’s edX was working on an automated essay scoring that can “read” an essay and determine if that essay meets a given standard of competently informed eloquence.

What would that look like?

Say, for example, you were studying the fall of the Roman Empire, a question might ask for 3 events, in the 5th century AD, that were symptomatic of the Roman Empire’s last gasp. Symptoms. Not causes.

Another question might also ask the student to name three explanations that have been proposed for the fall of the Roman Empire, beginning with the most ridiculous and finishing up with what the student believed to be the most plausible.

The AI could then reference a list of possibilities, based on the content of the course, but be ready for the possibility that the student might have gone beyond the course’s content to develop their argument.

Delightfully, the AI would also be able to recognize, in the first case, that you were in the process of presenting arguments for the causes of the fall and remind you, before you’d gotten too far into it, that what you were looking for, in your LTM, was symptoms, not causes.

Or vice versa, if you were on the second question.

You could then ask for a hint, which would obviously lower your final grade, but if you’re being graded against an average, evidence suggests that you could ask for quite a few hints and still do brilliantly against the bell.

I was imaging — and still am imagining — that the AI would simply match key words, evaluating them to see if they make semantic, linguistic and episodic sense when matched against an expert system. How hard could that be?

How impossible could that be?


If MIT is working on it, they haven’t shoved it out the front door. No such thing made any kind of appearance. In fact, even the tools for amplifying peer engagement, that its CEO has been outspokenly hawking as a key feature of edX, didn’t make any kind of spectacular appearance either.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the course and learn a lot from it.

For starters I got a brilliant example of Fast Thinking at work. I was busy looking for a course, any course, that would be of interest to me content-wise but the key objective was to find something that would let me get a closer look at said tech. In that sense, Mission Accomplished. But.

Wait until you see the user error.

What I found, I thought, was a survey course going from Late Antiquity to Medieval Europe. Constantine to Charlemagne, essentially. 200 – 800, plus or minus a few years on either end.

Upon closer inspection, after I had been looking forward to the above gander for a good month, the title turned out to be Ancient AND Medieval Europe.

My Fast Mind had filled in the blank and understood Antiquity TO Medieval Europe, unconsciously assuming that what we currently know about ancient Europe’s history is still too vague and unverified to compete with state of the art Medieval Studies.

Late Antiquity Europe, on the other hand, is a very hot topic. Hot hot hot.

I knew something was up when the first week turned out to be devoted to Ancient Mesopotamia (just a little) and Ancient North Africa (mostly), quite distant from ancient Europe in both the time and space continuums.

How did North Africa and Mesopotamia get classified as European?

Technically, Europe is everything west of Greece and Asia is everything east of Greece. We speak of Europe and Asia as if they were two continents, but anyone can see it’s one continent – with Greece in the middle. Alexander’s Greece.

Between 336 and 323 BC, Alexander landgrabbed for Greece east all the way to the Indus River Valley, in what is now commonly referred to as Pakistan, and southwest to Egypt. Cleopatra was a Greek.  Egypt was Greek from 332 to 30 BC, a little over 300 years. A fair chunk, but nevertheless a relatively small chunk of the continental African country’s total history — and not the chunk covered in the course.

Alexander’s Egypt and Baghdad were annexed to the Roman Empire in 30 BC, with the death of Cleopatra.

North Africa didn’t get annexed to west Asia until the Islamic Empire Arabized it in 639 AD, after the death of The Prophet in 632.

Many people believe that that was the straw that broke the Roman Empire’s back. Because Rome’s papyrus and bread came from Egypt, and when the Islamic Empire appropriated that goodie bag, the whole ship capsized.

The Fall of the western Roman Empire is thus dated 639 – not 476*.

It is interesting to note also that Venice and Ravenna are both, at this point, part of the eastern Roman Empire. The fallen western Roman Empire, on the other hand, is in the hands of the Lombards – short for longo bardi or long beards. The Lombards first coalesced in Scandinavia. They headed south, to Northwestern Germany, in the first century AD.

Their invasion of Italy was on the To Do List in 567 – after their conquest of what we would call Hungary and the southern Slavic states. Already by then they met with approximately zero resistance, also known as zero government.

Today, the capitol of Lombardi is Milan, in northern Italy.

And here we are again, back at the question of why a survey course of European History might include large chunks of North Africa, Mesopotamia and the Levant. From 30 BC to 639 AD, arguably, Egypt and Mesopotamia were paying Roman taxes and that makes their history European history. You don’t pay taxes to Rome unless you’re a citizen, right? Wasn’t that how that worked? Isn’t that how that works?**

Does that sound like a bizarrely familiar story to you?


We have a tendency to think that maps don’t change. But they do. When out of touch central governments fail, republican or monarchic, local players move in to grab the goodie bag. The technical term is Adaptation. People need leadership. Responsible people need responsible leadership.

The Roman Empire was failing before the Arabians liberated its nether regions. It was failing when Diocletian split the empire in two in 293.

*639 is a Barroom Brawl number. If you’re taking a test in a conventional classroom (or MOOC), and you want an A, you will need to use the 476 number.

**Actually, I seem to recall that they paid taxes only if they weren’t citizens. I’m not sure how I came to have that impression. So I’m going to have to look it up. Ping me if you want to bump it up on my priority list – or if you can cite a reference.

Featured Image Credit: Jerone Bon

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