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The False Promise of MOOCs

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, argues that students get real benefits from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Based on his experience teaching a MOOC on “The Modern and the Postmodern” for Coursera, Roth maintains that these benefits aren’t limited to the acquisition of technical skills: MOOC students can also engage in deep study of classic philosophical authors such as Rousseau and Kant. The op-ed is behind a paywall. But here is Roth’s conclusion:

Teaching this MOOC has shown me that online courses will be increasingly viable and valuable learning options for those who can’t make their way to campuses. Taking a course online is clearly not the same thing as integrating study with residential experience, but it is a powerful mode of learning that is already enriching millions of lives across the globe.

It’s probably an exaggeration to say that MOOCs are enriching “millions of lives”. But Roth provides anecdotal evidence that at least some of the nearly 4000 students who completed his course (of about 30,000 who registered) learned something from it.

The problem is, these were not the kinds of students that we should worry about helping. Roth’s anecdotes of positive engagement with course involve “a graduate student in the Netherlands”, “[a]nother adult student, in Germany”, and “[a]n American woman…taking the class with her husband and two other couples; all had Ph.D.’s”. In other words, Roth offers reasons to believe that MOOCs are a nice diversion for highly educated, highly motivated adults in rich countries. That’s fine, but no justification of all the excitement about MOOCs as an alternative, or even a meaningful supplement, to more traditional forms of higher education.

So what about students in this country who haven’t already earned a college degree? Peter Sacks offers a more realistic vision of the MOOCified future:

Well-off students will attend the few colleges and universities that are wealthy enough to eschew standardization and automation. They alone will have real relationships with great faculty. A second, less wealthy group of students will use online courses for their general education and attend “authentic” institutions for a short while. For poorer students, online learning could well become the main course. They will attend institutions that, strictly speaking, grant post-high school credentials to the coach class.

I don’t know if this scenario can be avoided. But I’m certain that it’s nothing to be celebrated. As the president of a rich college that serves mostly rich students, Roth can afford to offer free edu-entertainment to an international audience. But one wishes that he’d considered the consequences for the less fortunate institutions and students who dominate higher education here at home.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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