Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Massively Odious Online "Courses"

Columnist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is the latest to add his voice to the chorus in support of the wonders and glories of MOOC's -- Massively Open Online Courses -- the lecture-driven streaming video productions which many √©lite schools (Harvard and MIT among them) are now touting as the next big thing in education.  Just think: millions of people around the world can hear the lectures of top-flight genius professors -- for free! Of course no one will get any course credit, or a degree from any of these fine institutions, but no matter! -- Maybe we'll have quizzes, and the students who do really well on the quizzes will get some kind of scholarship.  As Jon Lovitz might say, "Yeah, that's the ticket!"

Look, university education has evolved enormously since a few teachers and students rented some rooms in Oxford in the twelfth century.  In those truly "olden" days, the seven liberal arts -- Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy -- made up the essence of the curriculum. And, since Oxford (and Cambridge, and most other medieval universities) existed to prepare people for lives in the church or government, Theology was soon added. Professors stood at lecterns, and students sat on benches, with only the most senior students allowed at the front bench, from which actual questions -- at least, after the innovations of Peter Abelard at the University of Paris -- could be directed at those professors.  There was, in general, no tuition, although the cost of room and board, along with textbooks (which in those days had to be rented, being too expensive to purchase) made the taking of a degree prohibitively expensive, unless one were wealthy, or (like Chaucer's diligent Clerk) had friends to pay one's fees, in return for which one would diligently pray for the salvation of their souls.

One thing, however, has never changed, really: the idea that "education" (the word comes from the Latin ex-ductere, which, intriguingly, can mean either "to lead forth" or "to draw out or stretch") is something which takes place when teachers and students are in the same room. The UK system has evolved considerably, and now typically consists of a course of lectures, at which one sits, examinations, which are scored by fairly standard rubrics, and tutorials, which give students invaluable one-on-one experience.  In the United States, the first few private colleges (Harvard, Yale, Darmouth, Brown, and the rest) followed the British model for the most part, while the Land Grant Universities (established by the Federal Acts of 1862 and 1890) used a similar set of introductory lectures followed by smaller and more advanced classes, and expanded the curriculum at first to the more "useful" arts and sciences (such as agriculture and engineering) as well as professional certifications (education, social work, nursing, and so forth).  Universities sometimes had urban extension classes, and the UK system was made more accessible through the Open Universities scheme, made famous in the film Educating Rita.

But how to make education more "open" -- more available to the masses -- has remained a tricky question. Systems set up, such as the City College of New York, to provide college-level training to the less-privileged, eventually started charging tuition and fees, and once again access skewed along class lines.  The "Open University" system in the UK was preceded by regional institutions, the "Red Bricks," which sought to offer comparable on-site classes to those of the ancient universities.  Somehow, though, neither of these transcended the old "open √©lite" model: one educated the wealthy, and those who, from among the poorer classes, could be culled and promoted by 'merit,' leading both to their success and their co-optation by the ruling classes. For those who "made the grade," a lifetime of improved prosperity and prestige awaited.

Today, a terrible idea has begun to flourish: that an education should be measured by the economic benefits it confers. This is doubly strange because so many of the institutions of opportunity which sought to elevate those who strove to better themselves had also adopted the model of a 'liberal arts' education that had its roots in the ancient schools of learning. Education has always had some sort of economic benefit, but before now this was never its reason for being. A richer life, not a richer paycheck, was once considered its highest goal.

The MOOC madness well fits this new conception. Education is not for the enrichment of life for the many, it is for awarding laurels to the victors; it is not a mechanism to improve the intellectual life of  all, but a "race to the top" where the best and brightest will receive cash prizes.  The highly exclusive institutions which are poised to offer the widest array of MOOC's may seem, at first, to be the world's great benefactors: behold, they give away education for free!  But what they give is not in fact education at all; they give only a repeated, recorded message, like the lecture of one of the many dead professors at Hogwarts School in J.K. Rowling's universe.  Those who receive these lectures are, in fact, ghosts as well: they have no student ID's, cannot use the library, will receive no in-person advising or counseling, and the work they do will not accumulate.

Of course Harvard and MIT won't keep doing this for nothing.  Eventually, the MOOC's will have to be capitalized, will have to pay.  The first few tiers may be free, and then payment, or suffering through advertisements for cruises or medicines, will have to carry the freight.  A few people will, perhaps, be identified and elevated: come on down, you're the next contestant on This Education's For You! But in fact, the old inequities will be the same as ever: personal development and satisfaction for those who excel, and a broom and a mop for those who don't. And pure MOOC's, the ones that offer exams and follow-up but no in-person component, have a terrifically high rate of attrition and failure. "Blended" or "hybrid" courses which mix online and in-person instruction, fare much better, for reasons that seem to me obvious -- but in whatever form, the MOOC bandwagon looks set to march on, as our latest educational juggernaut.

Once upon a time, there were institutions in which many people, men and women, studied and prayed and lived a devout life which their communities believed redounded to the public good. But then one man, Henry VIII, asked cui bono? And the monasteries, abbeys, and religious foundations of England were closed at a stroke, the monks and nuns sent to fend for themselves, while the King's men rolled up the lead roofing and carried away the books.  What was left was pilfered by the local peasants, and all that remained were mere ruins.

If MOOC's become the way of the future, I fear for education in America, and the world: if no higher purpose than increased earnings can be found, then our system will, within a generation, be little more than a ruin itself.

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