An Outsider Looks at MOOCs

My friend Tom Hilpert sent me the following thoughts on MOOCs and gave me permission to post them. I’ll respond on Thursday.

Dr. Mark Cheathem, a friend of mine who happens to be a college professor, often post links to articles critical of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

At various points in my life, I have seriously considered switching my career to teaching at the College level. In addition, my oldest child started university this year, so I typically read Dr. Cheathem’s material with interest. However, I am essentially an outsider when it comes to Academe.

It seems to me that the growing influence of MOOCs will soon be, if it isn’t already, a fact of life. But as I read about this, I have been frustrated by the fact that those who are invested in the more traditional Academy seem, at times, almost inept at defending some of its most precious features.

It is a fact that part of education involves the imparting of information. I think it behooves reasonable people to acknowledge that MOOCs certainly can be (and should be required to be) effective at giving information. It is rather silly to argue otherwise, and it does not help the cause of those who want to preserve a more traditional university model.

Professors should not be frightened of the information-capabilities of MOOCs. After all, books also impart information effectively. Throughout Western history, books written by university researchers have usually been made available to the general public, even those members who did not take classes from those scholars or even at their universities. This wide dissemination of research did not hurt either professors or universities, and indeed, I believe, fulfilled one of the vital roles of the Academy in greater society.

But books have always been only part of the whole thing that we call “university education.”  That is because for meaningful growth, information must not only be imparted, but also processed. This is the first place where I would like see a more cogent defense mounted. What is it about a professor that plays a unique role in the processing of information? Rather than just making the claim, defenders of pedagogy need to explain clearly and convincingly why and how a professor and a classroom are superior for information processing.

Secondly, particularly in the Liberal Arts, professors need to make the case to a new generation for a well-rounded education. At least in my own lifetime, there has always been a certain tension between university as a means to a better career and university as an education. Once again, a little honesty is order. Undergraduate degrees in psychology, history, literature, speech, social science and other humanities are mostly about the growth of the mind, and have little value for their subject matter in terms of obtaining a job. There are very few hiring managers anywhere in the economy rubbing their hands and saying, “I just can’t wait to hire another B.A. in medieval literature!”

Professors need to make a compelling argument for why, even if it does not immediately lead to a job, it may still be worthwhile to devote an undergraduate career to studying literature, or the other humanities. I believe there is such a case to be made.

Along with this, defenders of traditional pedagogy do have a few things to answer for. There has been a certain amount of ideological nonsense at various schools, usually perpetuated by untouchable tenured scholars. Many parents may want their children to specifically avoid the “broadening of the mind” that occurs at college, fearing, with some cause, that certain schools may attempt to indoctrinate young minds as much as broaden them. Unless this is addressed, a number of prospective students will continue to try to achieve education in other ways.

Another area that must be owned is that of cost. I realize that teaching professors are not generally to blame in this area, but it is only natural for parents and students to balk at paying exorbitant amounts for a well-rounded mind; money that does not pay off for years (if ever) in terms of a career. College costs have sky-rocketed, and though a mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste, at a certain price-point it becomes difficult for many people to justify unless it clearly pays off somehow.

For hundreds of years, universities have been both the repository and catalyst of cultural knowledge and cultural growth. Universities are, in effect, the most pervasive and powerful cultural think-tanks of the Western world. University scholars could make case from this for the perpetuation of some form of the traditional model, for the good of society at large.

MOOCs, or some form thereof, are probably here to stay. But now is the time to shape the discussion to ensure that the same thing is true of the institutional university.

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