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Ask Not For Whom the MOOC Tolls

The estimable Nicholas Carr has written a typically thoughtful essay for Technology Review on MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Excerpt:

The excitement over MOOCs comes at a time of growing dissatisfaction with the state of college education. The average price tag for a bachelor’s degree has shot up to more than $100,000. Spending four years on campus often leaves young people or their parents weighed down with big debts, a burden not only on their personal finances but on the overall economy. And many people worry that even as the cost of higher education has risen, its quality has fallen. Dropout rates are often high, particularly at public colleges, and many graduates display little evidence that college improved their critical-thinking skills. Close to 60 percent of Americans believe that the country’s colleges and universities are failing to provide students with “good value for the money they and their families spend,” according to a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center. Proponents of MOOCs say the efficiency and flexibility of online instruction will offer a timely remedy.

But not everyone is enthusiastic. The online classes, some educators fear, will at best prove a distraction to college administrators; at worst, they will end up diminishing the quality of on-campus education. Critics point to the earlier correspondence-course mania as a cautionary tale. Even as universities rushed to expand their home-study programs in the 1920s, investigations revealed that the quality of the instruction fell short of the levels promised and that only a tiny fraction of enrollees actually completed the courses. In a lecture at Oxford in 1928, the eminent American educator Abraham Flexner delivered a withering indictment of correspondence study, claiming that it promoted “participation” at the expense of educational rigor. By the 1930s, once-eager faculty and administrators had lost interest in teaching by mail. The craze fizzled.

Is it different this time? Has technology at last advanced to the point where the revolutionary promise of distance learning can be fulfilled? We don’t yet know; the fervor surrounding MOOCs makes it easy to forget that they’re still in their infancy. But even at this early juncture, the strengths and weaknesses of this radically new form of education are coming into focus.

Please do read it all. Yours truly is quoted therein, so you can see what I think there about a specific point, but let me make one more general one: in many ways the problem of technology is the “to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail” problem. Once we discover that some subjects — primarily in mathematics and computer science — can be taught via the technologically-sophisticated MOOC method, then it becomes very tempting to say that the most important educational deficiency we have is in mathematics and computer science.

This may or may not be true; but if we have what we believe to be a technological solution to a deficiency, then it becomes very easy for us to convince ourselves that the problem we think we can solve is the problem that really matters. Wandering around with our hammer and just itching to use it, we become insensible to objects that can’t plausibly be construed as nails. And then of course there’s the question of whether we really can solve the problem we think we can solve….

I think MOOCs are kind of cool, for some things, but like Carr, I think we should be wary of the vast promises being made on their behalf.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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