At the most recent Slavic Studies convention, I was talking with an old friend about the advent of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). We teach similar courses at different institutions – he teaches at a university with global name recognition, while I teach at a small liberal arts college. Even the “college” part of the name can be a problem in those many locations where the liberal arts college model is not well known. More than a few archivists and scholars have crinkled their eyebrows when examining my credentials, trying to make sense of what “Лафает Колледж” could possibly mean. My friend described to me some of the issues faculty members at his university were grappling with – when, how, and to what extent they should join the MOOC bandwagon. It is already clear that at big-time universities folks are beginning to be concerned that a failure to develop MOOCs could bring real harm to their profile and reputation at home and abroad.
Those universities are right to give long, hard thought to the potential that MOOCs have for promoting learning, not only for the largely well-to-do students of selective colleges and universities in the U. S., but for also for students with less means around the world. Still, for folks in my position and for the students who benefit from my work, it’s hard to see the growth of MOOCs as anything but a disaster. In the first place, I have difficulty imagining a real market competition between online courses. No matter how many “likes” or five star online reviews a course on Imperial Russia from a professor at Ruritania College might get, that professor (or college) will have a hard time competing with MIT or Stanford. It also, I think, carries special risk for American scholars of Russia. MOOCs draw strength from their economies of scale. Russian historians, on the other hand, do best when they focus on the quality of their courses rather than the quantity of the students who take them. I am an optimistic promoter of Russian Studies, but courses on the American Civil War will continue to outdraw courses on the Russian Civil War. There is sure to be space on these platforms for a variety of courses, but the eventual economic logic of MOOCs relies on the “massive” part as much as the “open” part. Enrollments will be carefully watched.
Still, I think that MOOCs could have a useful place somewhere in the new global information system. As my participation in this blog attests, I’m not opposed to digital platforms for scholarship and teaching, and I personally like video learning too. Right now, in fact, in anticipation of a semester in London, my whole family is watching Michael Wood’s cheerful and enthusiastic Story of England. I find myself able to (mostly) turn down my critical engines and get back in touch with the aesthetic pleasures of discovering an unknown past. Who knows, my kids might even dig an archaelogical pit in the backyard when the ground here in Pennsylvania unfreezes. If Stanford and MIT want to make it part of their evangelical mission to support faculty members who wish to produce up-to-date, high quality knowledge transfer sessions for free distribution around the world on the Internet, then God-speed.
But as you might expect, and as an article in today’s New York Times confirms, the ambitions of many MOOC developers are more extensive than that. Some are already taking the “open” out of the equation. The provost of Duke, for one, argues that “we don’t want to make the mistake the newspaper industry did, of giving our product away free online for too long.” Some profit streams may come from credentialing activities such as providing certificates of completion for a fee. Some profits are envisioned as coming from existing colleges and universities who want to outsource their teaching for a licensing fee. Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera, says that she thinks that “this model will spread, helping academic institutions offer their students a better education at a lower price.” Let’s leave to the side for the moment the long-term implications of this model if Ms. Koller is correct – a new educational world in which Ruritania College lays off its Russian historian and invites interested students to take a history course instead from Coursera – and focus on the question of a “better education.”
The basic problem here is the implicit assumption that education consists wholly of information transfer and, in some cases, a process of verifying that some amount of that information has been successfully downloaded from the professor on the screen to the brain of the student. Again, there is nothing wrong with this process of knowledge acquisition. There is also nothing particularly novel about it. In essence, it is much the same process that takes place when I read a book or when I watch Michael Wood on TV. It is autodidactic – I have an informational resource available to me, and I make use of it to the best of my ability and interest. We all learn a great deal autodidactically, and it’s an important part of a “traditional” college education as well. Whether I assign readings or “flip” a classroom to have them watch pre-recorded videos of lectures on their computers, I am asking them to work autodidactically. I get the strong impression that many of the early enthusiasts and promoters of MOOCs are so autodidactic that they are somewhat befuddled by the notion that there might be other ways of learning.
But of course, there are. Human beings do a lot of their learning within the context of important social networks. In fact, the more important the learning is, the more likely we are to learn them within a particular social relationship. Morals, manners, traditions, and jokes are taught through parent-child, sibling, or friendship relationships (though of course there are autodidactic supplements – a Miss Manners column for instance – that may augment this teaching). Churches, synagogues, and mosques provide communities through which religious knowledge and beliefs are learned. In college, social peers within the class also provide a mechanism for this social didacticism, through class discussion, through study groups, through their words of praise (or not) for their professors.
Finally, there is mentorship. This too has deep roots in familial and religious institutions, and it plays a key role in a high-functioning professor-student relationship as well. This relationship is a two-way street. It is a social relationship. I may be influenced by E. P. Thompson or Michel Foucault or Joan Scott when I read and like their books, but I am not mentored by them. I watched my academic mentors closely when I studied with them, but it was just as important that I knew they were watching back, that they knew me, my strengths, my weaknesses, my potential. That knowledge was crucial to my own transformation. Again, this is a principle that can be more widely applied. My daughter takes piano classes from a real live woman rather than just by reading piano books. I subscribe to Golf Digest, but really I learn most from my local golf pro, who I find myself wanting to impress with my game, just as I did my earlier teachers. Indeed, one of the things that surprised me as a younger teacher was that students were mostly motivated not by grades but by their desire to do well in my eyes and in the eyes of their peers. I do not know if there is something almost pheromonal about learning, if people learn better when in the actual physical presence of peers and mentors, but I would not be surprised if that were the case.
The genius of MOOC entrepreneurs is to capitalize on this fatal, and widespread, misconception about education. Most people think that education is about informational content, when in fact the core of education, at all levels, is about learning within social contexts. Successful institutions –whether educational, familial, or religious – combine autodidactic learning with social learning and inspired and inspiring mentorship. Education done right is an intensely labor-intensive process. It is not massive, and it is not online. As a result, there are unavoidable expenses, which means that it is also not open unless heavily subsidized by outside parties. By stripping away the social aspect of learning, MOOC entrepreneurs strip away some of the costs. They strip away more when they don’t have to supply dorms and cafeterias and vice-deans and football teams. In doing so, they seduce us into thinking that a “better education” can be had cheaply – for the amount of money we pay those very same entrepreneurs to supply branded platforms of content distribution. This is an intoxicating thought at a moment when the costs of higher education are under deserved scrutiny. College expenses have to be controlled, but not at the cost of eliminating the core of the educational process. If MOOCs do come to dominate higher education, as these entrepreneurs hope, we Russian historians are likely to be among the first casualties. But our students will be right on our heels.