Grading the MOOC University –

I read an interesting piece recently in The New York Times by A.J. Jacobs, a writer for Esquire magazine. It’s on the Time’s website under the title, Grading the MOOC University. Jacobs describes his experience taking several open online courses from such providers as Coursera, Udacity, and Edx.

I found the following excerpt intriguing:

The professor is, in most cases, out of students’ reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon. Several of my Coursera courses begin by warning students not to e-mail the professor. We are told not to “friend” the professor on Facebook. If you happen to see the professor on the street, avoid all eye contact (well, that last one is more implied than stated). There are, after all, often tens of thousands of students and just one top instructor.

Perhaps my modern history professor, Philip D. Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, put it best in his course introduction, explaining that his class would be a series of “conversations in which we’re going to talk about this course one to one” — except that one side (the student’s) doesn’t “get to talk back directly.” I’m not sure this fits the traditional definition of a conversation.

On the other hand, how can I really complain? I’m getting Ivy League (or Ivy League equivalent) wisdom free. Anyone can, whether you live in South Dakota or Senegal, whether it’s noon or 5 a.m., whether you’re broke or a billionaire. Professors from Harvard, M.I.T. and dozens of other schools prerecord their lectures; you watch them online and take quizzes at your leisure.

The more I thought about Jacobs’ isolating, individualized, one-way experience, I thought it reminiscent of another technological innovation: the Bibliographic Oracle Of Knowledge, more commonly known as BOOKs. Is this not where we have gone in the past for the dispensation of “Ivy League wisdom”? I’m not opposed to BOOKs–they can be wonderful things–but if BOOKs alone could accomplish the task of education, why have we continued to gather in groups since their invention?

As helpful as MOOCs might be as disseminators of knowledge in a media-rich age, do they not suffer the same limitation of BOOKs? They can inspire reflection and stimulate new ideas, but, unless at least two people who have read the same BOOK or viewed the same MOOC can meet, confer, debate, discuss, disagree, and speculate–in short, the very things that have drawn people to places of higher education for centuries–then I am unsure I can affirm that learning has taken place.

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