One of my favorite bloggers, Jonathan Rees, has been hammering the MOOC (massive open online course) that he enrolled in. Led by Princeton University history professor Jeremy Adelman, the MOOC is offered by Coursera, one of the leading companies pushing for free courses that are open to anyone. Rees is an outspoken critic of online education generally, and whether or not you agree with everything he says about the online delivery of education, you should read his blog to remain up-to-date on trends.

There are a lot of issues Rees raises regarding MOOCs, but I was surprised by how crassly capitalistic a company offering a “free” course could be. Referring to the textbook, which was not required, Rees wrote,

But here’s the really interesting thing that I didn’t realize until I decided to actually buy the book: Adelman is one of the co-authors. I have no special knowledge of the man’s contract, but it stands to reason that if even a small percentage of the approximately 70,000 students who’ve signed up for this course actually buy the textbook (particularly if they pay the $85 that Amazon wants for a hard copy), he and his co-authors are going to make a pretty penny from this thing.

Rees has also emphasized the structural problems of MOOCs, which include a lack of substantive feedback, academic dishonesty (in a free course, nonetheless!), and an emphasis on peer review and multiple-choice exams as appropriate ways to assess “higher order critical thinking.”

Financial and political pressures to adopt new technology may win out, but if they do, then students (and faculty) have lost something unique. As AHA president Patricia Limerick noted recently:

MOOCs mock nearly everything I have loved about the professor’s privilege of being in the company of young people as they launch into life. Is there a way, in a MOOC, to offer encouragement at precisely the right time and to watch as a young person, once awash in self-doubt, comes to a lasting recognition of her talents? Maybe I am hanging out in the wrong circles (or visiting the wrong sites), but I have not yet heard a young person declare, “The MOOC I have been logging into has changed my life and given me courage and faith in myself.”

I couldn’t agree more. Engaging students face-to-face, responding to their body language and facial expressions, and adapting a discussion or lecture on the fly is a crucial part of what I do as a professor. Sitting down with a student and talking about academic or life issues and encouraging them is a crucial part of what I do as an advisor and mentor. Helping student work through the process of research and interpretation of evidence is a crucial part of what I do as an historian. I am 100% confident that I could not follow through on those responsibilities anywhere near as effectively in a MOOC.

For more on MOOCs, read pieces by Alan Jacobs and Alisha Azevedo.

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