MOOCs And The Potential Loss Of Intellectual Diversity


Lately I’ve been thinking a bit about MOOCs – “massive online open courses” being offered by elite institutions like Harvard and Stanford. I think it’s great that those who can’t afford to enroll in such schools have a chance to learn from watching videos of lectures. However, politicians, business leaders, and some journalists have started making MOOCs sound like the future of higher education, and if they are right, our culture is in for some serious trouble. MOOCs might be fine for teaching basic courses in science, math, and engineering. But for even elementary courses in the humanities and social sciences, in which the vitality of the discipline essentially depends on intellectual and pedagogical diversity, the idea that everyone should learn the same material in the same way from a few elite professors is a recipe for disaster.

Those of us who are actually in the trenches – dealing with students every day in classes that are already too large at 50 or 60 – know that one-way instruction aimed at tens of thousands is no panacea for the ills afflicting higher education. The role of MOOCs in the college ecosystem will take some time to work out, but academics need to be fully engaged in the debate to counter-balance the politicians and corporate executives who view the situation only through a lens of economic efficiency.

Here’s an excerpt from a useful contribution to the debate by Siva Vaidhyanathan at The Chronicle of Higher Education

The strangest thing about this MOOC obsession is the idea that something that very wealthy private institutions offer for free, at a loss, as a service to humanity, must somehow represent the magic numbers in the higher-education lottery. It’s new, it’s “innovative,” and it’s big, the thinking goes. So it must be the answer.

Let me pause to say that I enjoy MOOCs. I watch course videos and online instruction like those from the Khan Academy … well, obsessively. I have learned a lot about a lot of things beyond my expertise from them. My life is richer because of them. MOOCs inform me. But they do not educate me. There is a difference.

For the more pedestrian MOOCs, the simple podium lecture captured and released, the difference between a real college course and a MOOC is like the difference between playing golf and watching golf. Both can be exciting and enjoyable. Both can be boring and frustrating. But they are not the same thing.

… MOOCs cost a lot of money, do not in any way simulate a classroom experience, and constitute—at best—the efficient yet static delivery of course content. The delivery of course content is not the same as education. And training students to perform technical tasks, such as doing basic equations in calculus, is not the same as education. Teachers get this, of course. So do students.

If we would all just take a breath and map out the distance between current MOOCs and real education, we might be able to chart a path toward some outstanding improvements in pedagogical techniques. But we can’t do that as long as the rich people who run university boards conduct their research by reading David Brooks columns and proceeding to lop off the heads of institutions who don’t seem to be following the mania of the moment.