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Ask Not For Whom the MOOC Tolls

The estimable Nicholas Carr has written a typically thoughtful essay for Technology Review [1] 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.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Ask Not For Whom the MOOC Tolls"

#1 Comment By john personna On September 28, 2012 @ 9:46 am

On the other hand, we’ve been hearing rather too many claims that “there are no nails.”

#2 Comment By PDGM On September 28, 2012 @ 10:07 am

Earlier this year, an outside consultant showed a group of faculty a web video from Stanford of someone touting these MOOC courses as globally transformational. The web video presenter, who to my mind was a cheerleader and not at all thoughtful, though she was a prof at Stanford, said something to the effect that “maybe the next Steve Jobs will come from Bengal.”

My reaction was, “if you think Steve Jobs is the ne plus ultra of the world, there’s already something wrong. My public comment to the audience was, “This woman has a narrowness of viewpoint that you’d almost have to be from a place like Stanford to share.” That is, she assumes that the values and ideals of the wealthy and upper middle classes of America represent the evolutionary telos of the world. This is absurd; and insofar as these types of courses are simply one more way of steamrollering all forms of intellectual and cultural difference in the world in the name of corporate, technological education, I think not just that they are very limited, but that they are actively a force for bad consequences.

I am, of course, the product of what I sometimes refer to as a “Catholic yeshiva” for my BA: a Catholic great books liberal arts college, which is profoundly countercultural, what with its assumptions that truth exists, that the human intellect is adequated to the real, and so on. You simply cannot offer a tutorial education based upon small group discussion online.

But equally, for other educational institutions, whether religious, culturally distinct, or those in some other way standing separate from the overall tendencies of our homogenizing and homogenized world, the tendency to valorize these types of courses and the technology that makes them possible is one more move away from valuable difference and towards global monoculture, tied into the closely related idea that “price” and “value” are identical.

The other idea, which I think you touch on with the idea of “hammer” is that sometimes one gets the sense that what’s so wonderful about these courses is that they are offered on the internet, and that the internet has become a kind of secular global deity: anything connected to it comes under its penumbra of grace, and critical thought concerning it becomes impossible.

#3 Comment By john personna On September 28, 2012 @ 10:53 am

@PDGM, in the big picture people have two goals with education. It is alternately a tool for career building, security and prosperity, or it is a path for personal growth and development. The people most tuned with the first path tend to be immigrants, Asian Tiger Moms, etc. The people most seeking the second path tend to be people with a few generations of comfort behind them.

For whatever reason (perhaps my dad’s Danish immigrant son, Great Depression, stories), I feel most connected to the first view, though of course I see overlap.

I am also a retired dot-com guy, who did self-educate, several times, on the internet. It worked for me.

What I’m hearing most from skeptics is that the internet can’t be what I used it for, because it can’t be used as something else.

Logical error.

But it is also a classic error in technology assessment. That is, survey current tech, and declare that it is insufficient, pretending a steady state.

#4 Comment By cw On September 28, 2012 @ 11:34 am

To me our university system in the process of failing. It costs way too much (costs rise faster than health care). There is way too much confusion over its purpose: is it job or life training. The actual education you get is insanely variable, even within the best universities. It seems like they really care about you enrolling and handing them some money, but don’t care at all the quality of your particular education after the money changes hands. The whole enterprise has for me has the aroma of system corrupted by contradictory incentives.

I have an intelligent 13 year old daughter and honestly don’t know if traditional college actually makes sense for her (I also don’t know how to pay for it).

What I would really like for her is two years of intensive, creative, imaginative, DESIGNED liberal arts study. Some place away from home, where you read and talk and do different kinds of work: life training. And then, I would like for her to move on to some kind of specific job training. Maybe at a university (she is interested in science) or maybe as an apprentice (I wish they still had these, that’s a whole other story) or maybe on her own or through a MOOC.

What I don’t want for her is to spend 6 or 7 years wandering through a university(s) taking this course and that and ending up with an some kind of mutant, half-assed, irrelevant, “education,” something most universities are be happily allow. And then she’ll need to go to grad school, of course.

So I’m happy to see MOOCs. Becasue they will maybe be useful to my daughter, but also because they will hopefully shake up the system, force universities to care about the education that they provide as much as putting up all those fancy new buildings and stadiums.

#5 Comment By cw On September 28, 2012 @ 11:36 am

Many typos in my post. If only my university education had included a course on proof reading.

#6 Comment By PDGM On September 28, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

John Personna, I understand what you say; and these online courses actually probably do work for computer science, as both Jacobs and you indicate. My concern is twofold: first, with the whole boosterish “wave of the future” aspect to it, the evangelization of online education, rather than the use of it to accomplish specific goals; and second, the homogenizing effects of this form of education as (probably when) it becomes more and more ubiquitous. There are quite a few human beings in the universe who for cultural and religious reasons do not want to be steamrollered by global commercial “culture” and this form of education is, I think, going to be one more of the beach heads of this ongoing push. And it will be all the more effective in its homogenizing effects precisely because online education is effective for some things, and free.

The idea that we will become a Benetton advert for diversity, admiring each others distinctiveness through the online world is, I think, hugely naive. Rather the wealthy and powerful and more technologically advanced will become more and more the norm, to the intellectual and cultural poverty of us all.

#7 Comment By PDGM On September 28, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

cw, I would argue that coherent liberal arts training only exists where there is a cultural and or religious consensus about first principles: that there is a truth; that there is a human nature; that there is a God; and that each of these is to some degree knowable. In other words that all education is education into a culture and tradition.

The reason why American universities–including liberal arts ones by and large– are by and large utterly incoherent is that there is no consensus on any of this, even in the bland, pre 1960s, pre “relevance” way that might have once typified American higher ed. Now, it’s “whatever the prof wants” plus some stabs job training; this can be range from intellectual neanderthals (or premodern hybrids, to put it nicely) such as myself, to your most fad-susceptible theory heads.

To do better, you have Saint Johns in Annapolis or Santa Fe, for example, which might be the best you can do without any commitment to revealed truth (but I’ve heard possibly dated talk that they generate a many of Nietzscheans, plus some Christian converts), or if you are Catholic or at least are willing to entertain Catholic, Thomistic views, Thomas Aquinas College in California, which can be IMO a little narrow.

Otherwise, liberal arts tends rapidly towards incoherence, as it must if there’s no set of guiding beliefs behind it except in the most vague and non-offensive way.

#8 Comment By PDGM On September 28, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

One last comment, and then I’ll shut up: cw, you say you want “creative” and “imaginative” education. But maybe your daughter would be better off with just a rigorous education in important ideas and the ability to think about them, connect them, contrast them, and read and write about them in a coherent way. Then the creative and imaginative elements are up to her. This is not to say that there aren’t astonishingly dull teachers and good ones; but attempts at teaching “creativity” and “imagination” all too often end up, in my experience, in personal idiosyncrasy and incoherence, the very things you deplore.

#9 Comment By john personna On September 28, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

Is this last call for comments? 😉

I’d suggest this is a breakdown from simplicity and not a new conformity. Simplicity was a progression from high school diploma, to bachelors, to masters, to doctorate. It was a train track up a mountain, and you got lower or higher.

In this breakdown and competition for new models it doesn’t look like there is going to be a single new path. It looks like there are going to be competing branches and end-points. Perhaps Billy will have a BS from Indiana State, and Jane will have a certificate from a web collective. Employers will have to figure that one out.

#10 Comment By john personna On September 28, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

Sorry for the missing words. “you got off the train lower or higher up.”

#11 Comment By cw On September 28, 2012 @ 3:50 pm


I know what you are saying. And I would like my daughter to get an education that stems from from some basic principals and then progresses coherently from there. Instead of just mishmash of whatever thrown against the wall in hope that something sticks.

But I am a total agnostic. I don’t believe that the “Truth” is available to humans. Maybe some small truths. ANd youspeak of “consensus,” but what consensus is that? There are a million consensuses in the world.

And I also am sort of an philosophical anabaptist. I want my daughter to know about history, great literature, philosophy, music, science, art…the whole liberal art schema. But I want her to be able to assemble her own “truths” from all that. And maybe that is what I want most from her education; the ability to assemble, or find, a set of “truths” that works for her.

I imagine this is totally counter to your way of thinking, but I think in the ideal liberal arts education, the student should be given the background knowledge, and the thinking skills, to at some point recognize where they are in the world and in history, and to determine what’s going on, and then have the creativity and grit to then make themselves happy in their circumstance. If that means she becomes a Catholic or a Bahai or whatever, I’m fine with that. If it means she finds something else, I’m ok with that too, as long as she’s not out murdering people or ingesting tons of toxic chemicals or modeling.

#12 Comment By PDGM On September 28, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

cw, it’s not counter to my way of thinking; but I think what you want rapidly devolves into incoherence because there’s no metaphysical glue or even “social pressure” glue to hold the project together. That’s why either the retrograde mild assumption, pre “relevance” American higher ed was necessary–maybe that there were “great thoughts” and “great thinkers” and works created by them, or else the retrograde Catholic liberal arts model (revealed truth with a specific relationship to classical philosophy) is needed. St. Johns represents a holdover of the first; Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA, the second.

It’s eminently possible I’m being too pessimistic here, and I’d love to hear from others (Alan, are you there?) on this topic as well, though it’s strayed from the original topic of MOOC education. But this represents my experiences in both prestigious publically financed schools and smaller, less prestigious private and public ones. It’s my concern where I teach now, though it’s routinely swamped by the activity of just plain teaching!

May I suggest a new thread on whether liberal education in anything other than a pointless, SWPL form is possible minus retrograde assumptions (either social ones or metaphysical ones?)

#13 Comment By cw On September 28, 2012 @ 8:27 pm

How about something based on analysis and problem solving. I worked at Boeing for a while and there were these guys called process engineers and their job was to figure out better ways to make airplanes. They had to analyze what was happening currently, then come up with creative ideas to do it better, then figure out ways to test their ideas before spening millions to implement them.

What if you applied this kind of thinking to life? Like I said before, you need background knowledge–history, literature, psychology, religion, philosophy, etc…- but then you need systematic thinking skills: design and engineering type thinking, rhetoric/writing, statistics, what else…. Obviously I am making this up as I type, but hopefully you see where I am going.

Of course this probably only applies to a certain kind of person. Not everyone wants to solve problems through critical thinking, and that’s OK. I just don’t have any brilliant ideas for them.

#14 Comment By cw On September 28, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

Heuristics. I think that word should have been in my comment somewhere.

#15 Comment By Alan Jacobs On September 29, 2012 @ 8:10 am

PDGM, someday we’ll get such a conversation!

#16 Comment By EHH On September 29, 2012 @ 8:58 am

Interesting discussion. I agree with PDGM but also appreciate cw’s and John Persona’s points.

I think the seductive thing about technological innovations like MOOC is that while they increase access they at the same time provide what is in some respects a diminished experience. More people will be able to get something and, in some respect, be better off than they would have been otherwise, but the best may become rarer.

It calls to mind the effect of music recording. At one time you had to hire musicians or have someone in the family play and sing, and had to be satisfied with what was locally available. Recording liberated one from these constraints and, over time, the technological improvements closed much of the gap between live and recorded performance. (Well, the MP3 might be a step backwards.) So now everyone has easy access to top-notch performances of Beethoven’s late quartets; at the same time, the it becomes harder for string quartets to make a living. And there are also complaints that distinct national and regional orchestral styles have been supplanted with a homogoneous international style.

So what’s the best trade-off? That’s big question and involves a close look at the needs and desires being addressed. I don’t think, though, that more access is always better.