The real problem with the online revolution in education isn’t that it threatens to destroy higher education. It is that the success of that revolution reveals how thoroughly higher education has already been abandoned.
One of the most recurring stories in higher-education news is the rise of MOOCs, or massive open online courses (an acronym that nobody bothered to pronounce aloud before adopting it). The basic idea is that you film a traditional lecture and stream it online for everyone to see.
Instead of a faculty-to-student ratio of 1:50 or, in some of the largest classes, 1:500, pioneers in MOOCs have achieved 1:40,000. Certainly, that number is somewhat skewed by the novelty and lack of competition, but as more super-star professors offer their courses online and fewer students sign up just because they have to see what this MOOC thing is all about, I don’t think that the comma will disappear from the ratio.
A way to reduce the faculty-to-student ratio without jeopardizing one’s ranking in U.S. News & World Report has long been the dream of administrators, and MOOCs save on physical infrastructure costs, to boot. Since MOOCs are cheaper to deliver, tuition costs could drop. And instead of being stuck with some third-rate professor at a second-tier state school for intro to biology, everyone could take advantage of the best teachers in the country, or so the argument goes. Lower tuition, broader access, better teachers, streaming video—the rhetoric behind MOOCs pushes all our buttons.
Admittedly, most of the press has questioned whether MOOCs can function as education. The concern repeated again and again is that it is difficult to grade so many students at once. Even if one employed a legion of graders, how could we monitor cheating? (Somehow we expect to continue to draw Ph.D.-caliber people to work as graders for GED wages without hope of advancement.) A piece in today’s New York Times notes, rightly, that second-tier institutions might destroy what little credibility they have left if they attempt to compete with Princeton or Harvard in the online-education game.
There are further challenges to overcome, of course. By “best teacher,” advocates of the new MOOCs really mean whoever is over at MIT. You do not get hired at MIT, or any top school, because you are a good teacher. Getting hired is a matter of personal connections formed because they enjoyed talking to you about your research. If we, say, “let the market decide,” the result will be YouTube, a million voices competing with one another, the saddest being those who think that success is based upon merit. So the stars of the online revolution will be a caste of well-connected researchers.
Tirades against the new medium note that it cannot function as liberal education. After all, how do you interact with the students? Well, supporters of the new technology point to the use of clickers. Pollsters use dials that a test audience can use to give instant, second-by-second feedback about whether they like a candidate. Give the same to students and they can signal to the professor whether they don’t understand something, how confused they are, how many students are confused, etc. This isn’t a YouTube video, but a live streaming lecture, and so the professor can respond.
Of course, “Hey, could you repeat that?” is not the sort of interaction that forms the basis of a liberal education, while the value of higher education lies primarily in what a liberal education provides (see this post). What MOOCs promise is just a lecture. The consensus regarding the lecture format had been that it had to be changed in favor of more classroom interaction. Large classes were said to be a bad thing because you cannot hold a discussion with a large class. Large classes fostered the lecture format, which we were supposed to be moving away from. And by “large” classes, we meant those with fifty students.
Granted, we cannot educate in an online format. We can only instruct. Some people can learn just by reading a book. Others need to hear it spoken aloud. A lecture is like a book on tape. The books-on-tape format struggles because there is a different writing style needed for books to be read and books to be heard, and most books on tape are just vocalized print-books. A lecture is a book on tape that was written to be read aloud. Lectures teach you things that you could read from a book. They are valuable to those who cannot learn that way.
Lectures are also live. One of Socrates’ criticisms of written works was that they said the same thing to everyone, unable to explain a point in further detail if there were a question, unable to distinguish between those who would understand a message and those who would only be further confused by it. A lecturer can take questions, can go over things again, can gauge the look on students’ faces. But it is still in essence a paper read aloud, even if the best lecturers actually “write” their lectures on the fly.
Massive open online courses will survive, thrive, and eventually displace traditional methods because their deficiencies are shared by traditional methods. Yes, MOOCs are just fancier versions of the old books on tape, but most of the education to which students are exposed is just a live performance of a book on tape, a play rather than a movie. Yes, an online professor responding to instant feedback reaction dials is not really interacting with students, but meatspace professors lecturing in a large hall are also not really interacting with their students. Yes, MOOCs cannot provide a liberal education, but we do not provide a liberal education. (Those places that do are recognized as special: we call them “liberal arts colleges,” and they tend to have names known only to the college-educated.)
Those heartwarming voices who say that MOOCs are overrated because they cannot provide an authentic educational experience and therefore represent a flash in the pan seem to be arguing from ought to is. They set the online courses up against an ideal of what a college education should be and predict their failure because they fall short of that ideal. In reality, however, the competition the MOOCs face is not an authentic, life-altering, consciousness-shattering protreptic toward a life of the mind, valuable for its own sake, but rather lectures by people of widely different personal, intellectual, and pedagogical capacities on topics already covered adequately by Amazon.
The question is not why eat hamburger when you can eat steak. It is why pay $10 for a can of Spam that you can get for $3?