MOOCs don’t signify the end of higher ed

By Dan Wilcock

Recently I’ve been taking a massive open online course (MOOC) from Harvard via EdX. The course, called Justice, is a compact primer on the major philosophies that frame contemporary ethics.

The idea to take the class came from a New York Times column that identified Justice as EDX’s first humanities course. As a lifelong learner and believer in the value of a liberal arts education, I figured I’d give it a shot.

The instructor, Michael Sandel, strikes me as an ideal instructor for exposing hundreds of thousands of people to thinkers like Bentham and Kant. He delivers his lectures with precision and, as far as I can tell, rises above offering any opinion himself. The class itself is pretty simple: lecture videos and required quizzes with some optional forums and reading links thrown into the mix.

It’s been a pleasant way to pursue some extra-curricular education.  Yet right now I think MOOCs are closer in value to checking out a stack of books from the library than being a member of a scholarly community.

Unless MOOCs become substantially more interactive, shifting the work of universities to the equivalent of advanced online customer service, I don’t think they spell the end of higher ed. They are simply too passive. In a world in which access to information is becoming rapidly democratized, the kind of information that MOOCs provide is becoming cheaper than ever. If technology puts that information at your command whenever you need it, the utility of having slogged through a ton of online lectures may be marginal at best.

Rather than being a harbinger of doom, I think MOOCs will force universities to offer a better value to students. Far too many families have paid far too much money in America for information-dump classes. I hope that universities begin to use MOOCs so students can get these preliminaries out of the way. Classroom time can be reserved for the good stuff: sharing a journey with an expert guide, learning the essential interpersonal art of persuasion, exposure to the idiosyncrasies of peers, testing and revising one’s ideas through debate, working on teams and contemplating lessons in daily life.

I know this may sound overly idealistic, perhaps credulous. I realize that college is also a place where young people go off to over-priced summer camp characterized by climbing walls and bad beer in red cups. MOOCs won’t change who 20somethings are, but hopefully they’ll inspire universities to be a bit better.