22,000 sign up to learn the secrets of ancient Egypt

University of Pennsylvania Professor of Egyptology David Silverman will lead a massive online open course in which more than 20

University of Pennsylvania Professor of Egyptology David Silverman will lead a massive online open course in which more than 20

David Silverman is one of the world’s foremost authorities on ancient Egypt. Whenever a crackpot theory about Egypt comes to the surface – like how space aliens must have built the pyramids – he is asked to comment.

He doesn’t mind. Even wackadoo questions lead to interesting answers.

“When you go into the pyramids above the burial chamber, you can see writing by some of the workers on the walls,” said Silverman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and curator of its museum’s Egyptian section. “Indicating they were there, working on it.”

Silverman is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and the curator of the Egyptian section of its Museum of Archeology and Anthropolgy. He will teach the museum’s first MOOC – a Massive Online Open Course. The 10-session class will be available to anyone, for free, through Coursera.

He is doing it, in part, to dispel misconceptions that have accrued in the masses. For example: the pyramids were not built by slaves, as per popular belief. During that particular era, Egypt did not have slaves.

The course begins Monday, October 31. Already, almost 22,000 people have signed up. With a roll that size, there will be little direct interaction between teacher and student. Instead, there will be video lectures with high production values, detailed images and information on the museum’s collection of 50,000 artifacts, a blog for questions and answers, and, yes, a test.

“I’ve never launched a class before,” said Silverman. “I’ve organized them, and taught them, but this is my first launch.”

Back in the 1970s, Silverman was part of the team that created the massively popular museum exhibition of King Tutankhamun, the first blockbuster museum exhibition that toured internationally. To this day, the Franklin Institute uses King Tut has the high water mark for exhibition attendance (1.2 million people saw it in Philadelphia).

Silverman says the Massive Online Open Course will serve a similar purpose: to feed the seemingly bottomless interest the public has for ancient Egypt.

“Even in horror movies, the mummy remains the most interesting. I’m not sure why,” he said. “Maybe because a lot of people have their first exposure to Egypt in studies about the Bible. They are familiar with it.”

MOOCs usually attract high numbers of registrants initially, but most will drop out before it ends. The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia launched a MOOC about the music of Beethoven that attracted 100,000 students; less than half ultimately completed it.

Those who complete the Ancient Egypt course (and pass the tests) will get a certificate and be able to come to a live, in-person event at the museum where students can finally meet their professor in real life.

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