Against MOOCs

Salon’s Alex Pareene archly reminds us that the Tom Friedmans of the world thrive precisely because they recycle their own bad, disproven ideas, over and over again. Their “zombie ideas” cannot be killed off. Their punishment? A billion readers. A global platform. Seven figure book advances.

Despite what I wrote here, I’m not opposed to MOOCs. Not in the abstract, that is. As an expression of a university’s commitment to the general public betterment, we should welcome them. Academics crave a greater engagement with our surrounds – for an end to the town-and-gown divide – and the digital world can offer a new set of transformative relations. The general public – from seniors on a fixed income to a working class in need of re-training – just as strongly desires access to educational content outside of a formal degree structure. Ideally, and in this narrow sense, MOOCs are a recurring, broadcast version of the proverbial lecture at the public library.

But there is no profit in this kind of thing. Nor is there opportunity for Friedman and his fellow travelers to wrap themselves in the sexy “new.”

For big publics, the shift in resources towards MOOCs comes at a moment when states are rapidly retreating from the great bargain of the mid-century – low cost quality education offered to a local citizenry in exchange for serious financial support from the state government. When the state asks for more from the university – for new technological infrastructures, new teaching strategies, and the re-training of faculty – even as they offer less in support, there is something strange going on. The great bargain has been broken, and the terms are being renegotiated, with damning consequences for universities, states, and their student populations.

MOOCs are surely a part of this story. As a delivery mechanism for content and credit, MOOCS are a clumsy alternative, establishing physical distance when proximity is needed and expanding the size and scale of the class beyond the point where a real interaction between teacher and student can take place. The size of a class is not the measure of its success. And yet the dream of 100,000 students paying for a course is so alluring that the failure to move swiftly to realize it can lead to the ouster of a popular university president. The long term goal is to monetize the experience, to capture an untapped market of would-be learners and drain their pockets. To do, for higher education, what Rosetta Stone has done for language learning. Universities, now starved for revenue to make up for lost state support and confronted with limited public appetite for tuition increases, are shifting resources to make room for these big, bland classes.

Yes, bland. Bland for students. Taste and judgement are different things. And the hunger for education makes cheap fare seem like something fit for a gourmet.

In serving up this cheap fare, MOOCS distract attention and redirect resources away from bricks-and-mortar campuses, but they also do the same to forms of experiential learning, like archival research and fieldwork and time in a lab, like study abroad and study away. This isn’t a bit of ephemera to be discarded. It is the foundation of what we do. Beyond the mere accumulation of information, students are supposed to leave college having learned how to identify evidence, how to distinguish evidence that is useful from that which is not, how to craft an argument or hypothesis about this evidence, and how to routinely test that same argument or hypothesis. This requires time spent writing, thinking, and reading something – a novel, a data set, a letter, a chemical reaction, a group dynamic – in the context of something else – a genre, a larger data set, a collection of letters and papers, a set of chemical properties, a pattern of rituals and practices. This is hands-on, eyes-open, first order work.

Even Tom Friedman always travels to see what is new, always learns something in a taxi cab, or always makes a discovery over coffee. Because his moments of “accidental” discovery on the road are so appallingly clichéd, they are easy to laugh at. But there is a truth to them, too. They speak to the need to see, to touch, and to handle in order to understand.

Once, I led a group of twelve students to Guyana. We went to study race-relations in the global south, and arrived in the aftermath of a terrible flood, with most of the coastline decimated. Racial tensions between Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese peoples were on the rise. Georgetown’s role as a switching point for drug cartels was being cemented. It was hot and humid. And there we were, a ragtag group of undergraduates and graduates, faculty and non faculty, all from Indiana, moving by bus and by foot through the city and along the coastline.

One of our group – a young man I’ll call Chet – had never been on a plane before. He was a small town boy with a mullet and a deep twang. Everyday, I watched him walk through the city, take note of the deteriorating infrastructure, and listen carefully to our guides. Touching things. Looking at them in real time. Trying to understand how everything worked. Pushing them open and pulling them closed. When I asked the class to propose a few new public health measures, his ideas were easily the best. By “best,” I mean that his answer was thoughtfully informed by the evidence of rich experience, by what he’d learned from his own fieldwork and ethnography.

In our lust for the MOOC, we are coming close to losing something precious. So much of American literature and culture focuses on the relationship between travel and transformation, on the open road and the open mind. Kerouac. Thelma and Louise. Thoreau. The sojourns of Chris McCandless. The Searchers. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Huck and Jim on the Mississippi. Chet in Guyana. In all of this work, knowledge comes from shaking loose, briefly, violently, transgressively, from the private, safe, domestic worlds we create. We break free, we are transfixed, we return different.

You want to choose a good university for your son and daughter? Ask about resources for study abroad. For student research in the field. For faculty-student collaborations. Ask about labs. You want to learn something new but don’t want to take a class for credit at the local community college? Take a MOOC. Or go to that public library for a lecture. And then go somewhere. Get in your car and go somewhere you’ve never been. Use the senses. Write your own story of transformation. Don’t let the worst of the MOOC enthusiasts fool you into believing that you can have the same experience from the plush comforts of your couch. You can’t.

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