Are MOOCs making education a monoculture?

The rise of Massive Open Online Courses is presenting higher education with a powerful challenge. Access to great teachers will help millions. But will MOOCs cause a massive college shakeout as well?

Michael Reilly/Daily News-Record/AP
James Madison University graduate Nandi Alexander celebrated May 4 in Harrisonburg, Va.

A tree farm produces a monoculture you can count on. Its timber efficiently becomes the lumber that makes houses and furniture. A woodlot is a little more sketchy. It might begin as a forgotten weed patch, grow into a scrubby forest, and eventually host a mini-United Nations of species. Left alone, a woodlot can become an interestingly varied patch of earth, maybe even a natural treasure.

Conventionality or originality? Most of us choose both. We don’t want surprises when it comes to floor joists. We prefer our airline pilots not to let the muse guide them to Pittsburgh. But leave room for serendipity. Order keeps our world humming. The unthought-of tips the world’s equilibrium. It can be as disruptive as quantum physics, as fresh as Beethoven or The Beatles.

Education is forever balancing and rebalancing uniformity and creativity. Basic competence has to be mastered. But innovative thinking must be encouraged. Read the canon of great literature, but don’t be afraid to demolish conventional wisdom. Students and their parents seek out the best school and best teachers, hoping for the best education. But students can flourish at middling colleges and with average teachers if their reading is inspiring, their lab work intriguing, their thinking encouraged.

When you read Laura Pappano’s cover story on the huge stir being caused by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs, pronounced “mooks”), you may at first think that there’s nothing new under the sun. Correspondence courses, after all, began in the 19th century. Over the decades, educational institutions have experimented with teaching via radio, television, closed-circuit video, and the Internet. And each new distance-learning technology has prompted predictions of the demise of ivy-clad campuses, the loss of mentoring by belovedly quirky profs, and the end of fond memories of college life. Fifteen years ago, a reporter from The Boston Globe marveled at how 1990s cutting-edge technology – “a two-way PictureTel compressed-video system linked by high-speed phone lines” – was connecting a classroom on Martha’s Vineyard with a university on the Massachusetts mainland. As one university official told him (well, actually, told me): “What is better in terms of quality – a dull, boring, standard lecture, or a penetrating lecture by a great teacher, backed up with all the best video props...?”

The PictureTel wonderment didn’t disrupt the college paradigm back then. Will MOOCs? Perhaps. The technology and pedagogy of online ed is constantly improving. And the pressing need to control costs seems destined to drive online education forward. That worries some people. This spring, philosophy professors at San Jose State University in California sent a protest letter to political philosophy superstar Michael Sandel of Harvard University decrying the MOOCing of his course of social justice. Among other things, they warned, “the thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary – something out of a dystopian novel.”

A balance needs to be struck between the franchising of high-quality education and the more intimate, locally grown experience that occurs when teachers and students reason together in a classroom. It seems inevitable that the MOOC monoculture will spread. But let’s make sure we preserve the woodlot. Amazing, unthought-of ideas could be growing in it. 

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

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