Massive Online Classrooms (MOOC) and the Purpose of Universities




Suppose knowledge consisted of a set of correct answers to important human questions. These so-called closed-ended questions and their answers would be the sole target for university curricula. Suppose in addition that some expert somewhere possessed the universally accepted correct answers to those questions. Would it not follow that democracy would be advanced and a university education would be more efficient, if that expert enlightened thousands of students in a single course transmitted over the Internet?

Why, ask supporters of such a Never Never Land, do we need classrooms filled with teachers who by definition are inferior to the Grand Expert?

Many of the administrators of universities who tout MOOCs are doing so less because they have a vision of learning consistent with the assumptions in the first paragraph of this post, but more because they see cost efficiencies—cost savings predicated on a lack of concern for the complexities of human wisdom.  But some, doubtlessly, believe these courses represent a spread of access to learning for the masses. Their attention is directed to the large number of enrollees, not to the nature of what is and is not being learned even in the best MOOC available.

Many of us aghast at the MOOG movement and what it implies about truth, teaching, and the future of learning ineffectively grapple with what to say in opposition.  How do we speak persuasively to those who have permitted education to become just another market output?

Never again will you need to search your imagination for cogent critique of the MOOC Syndrome.  Yale English Professor David Bromwich in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, (Sorry, NYRB does not give free access to the entire article.  See your library.) has provided what we need.

He correctly places the emergence of MOOCs squarely in the same drive toward market efficiency that has accelerated “robotification” in grocery stores and airline check-in procedures. There is a simple profitability logic justifying technological change requiring 10-20% of your former workforce. But in that special space called “learning” do we want a single uniform, canonical perspective to be the only perspective presented in universities. Is not that uniformity antithetical to liberal learning. Acting as if anything important that needs to be learned can be reduced to right and wrong answers is enslaving, not liberating.

The special merit of Bromwich’s article is his portrayal of the potential magic and provocation of classroom interaction among students and between the professor and students in an environment of joint curiosity and contrary assumptions. Once we accept the transcendent importance of open-ended questions with their multiple reasonable answers, we understand more fully why we should feel a visceral skepticism about MOOC’s. And there is no reason whatsoever that we cannot at the same time take advantage of MOOC’s for information transfer in the form of universal answers to closed-ended questions.

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