Reasonable Words: MOOCs

Much of the energy around MOOCs has been focused on access to science and technical courses from elite institutions. I’ve been intrigued about how this revolution will affect the humanities, which so often seem associated with the seminar room and coffee house, small groups of intense young people (goatees and gitanes optional but strongly recommended) getting at just how wrong Kant really was about geometry and whether Allan Bloom should be ostracized. (Guess it shows that I went to college in the 80s, huh?)

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Quaint, but probably no wireless. Kenyon College as it once was.

The LA Review of Books has a panel discussion about MOOCs with engrossing takes by three profs, with observations, pros and cons. Here is a bit I liked from Ray Schroeder, whose college experience, like mine, was on a tree-lined campus, with a beautifully undigital library, and Shakespeare read aloud and listened to under oak trees. But things have changed…

Over the past decade, I have taught only online. Students in my classes are far-flung — two from Alaska this term among the others from the lower 48. In the past, I have had students from assorted countries; they bring a diversity, a richness of perspectives to classes that I never experienced previously. I taught eduMOOC in the summer of 2011; we had students in 70 countries. Engagement and interaction came through “meet-ups,” such as the group in Christchurch New Zealand who met weekly at the McDonalds (free wi-fi, don’t you know) to engage and discuss the future of learning. Brazilians tolerated our English language panel discussions and then met in their Portuguese language wikis. Still others engaged in Google Hangouts. The social constructivist principles of what scholars of education call the “community of inquiry” thrive online through teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence. Those are the very same principles that led to the success of the liberal arts college experience decades ago.

Other views as well, though. Ian Bogost is not so sanguine.

MOOCs are a kind of entertainment media. We are living in an age of para-educationalism: TED Talks, “big idea” books, and the professional lecture circuit have reconfigured the place of ideas (of a certain kind) in the media mainstream. Flattery, attention, the appeal of celebrity, the aspiration to become a member of a certain community, and other triumphs of personality have become the currency of thinking, even as anti-intellectualism remains ascendant. MOOCs buttress this situation, one in which the professor is meant to become an entertainer more than an educator or a researcher. The fact that MOOC proponents have even toyed with the idea of hiring actors to present video lectures only underscores the degree to which MOOCs aspire to reinvent education as entertainment.

The whole roundtable is worth reading, if you’ve been following this world.

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