Online Classes are Risky — And That's a Good Thing

In a recent article published at Slate, Jonathan Rees claims that widespread adoption of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) will be “disastrous for students and most professors."

While Rees does present a few valid criticisms, he ignores the areas that MOOCs might be particularly effective.

To start off, Rees alleges that MOOCs are only capable of transmitting information and not properly educating. He makes the distinction between simply doing the reading and fully engaging in a course with the benefit of an instructor or one’s peers, and he’s right in some respects. MOOCs can’t replicate something like a Socratic discussion, and in their current form, they aren't going to be great vehicles for training creative thinking or critical analysis.

But in only talking about their weaknesses, Rees completely ignores the areas in which MOOCs dominate.

Certain subjects like coding actually lend themselves quite well to an online platform. Sites like Udacity and Codecademy specialize in teaching programming languages via hands-on projects and tutorials. The lessons are engaging because the students aren’t just passive recipients of information; they’re learning to code by actually doing it.

The fact that MOOCs are generally free and available online has allowed some students to take a more active role in designing their own education as well.

Udacity students, for example, hold meet-ups to facilitate group learning and collaboration. These meet-ups are student organized and spread out across 567 different cities worldwide. While Udacity has made this possible by providing the content, it is the students themselves who have stepped up to create their own classroom environments.

One way to look at it is that MOOCs are providing something a la carte that was previously available only as part of the bundle offered by the typical college or university. If students have increasingly granular control over their education, it will mean greater diversity in how society approaches education, as well as educational systems that are better tailored to individual students' needs.

While Rees’ initial criticisms have some validity, his second set of claims quickly wander into the realm of speculation. He writes, "Somewhere right now, private companies, university administrators, and/or politicians are already planning an all-MOOC future for most of tomorrow's college students. Unlike today's MOOC participants, these future students will have to pay for access to them. Only the most privileged students will still have in-person access to highly qualified professors."

Reese references the interest of State Universities in using MOOCs as tools to educate more students at less cost. Strapped for cash ever since the downturn in '08, some of these institutions seem intent on employing MOOCs to teach subjects in the liberal arts for which they are simply not well suited.

But if university administrators are turning to MOOCs out of concern for operating budgets instead of educational outcomes, there’s something wrong with the politics of university administration. Railing against the MOOCs will, at best, drive university policymakers toward other arbitrary cost-saving strategies instead of fixing the underlying bad incentives. And to be honest, the very existence of the MOOCs is an indicator that there is something wrong with public higher education in terms of costs as well as outcomes.

Will MOOCs sweep away the problems of higher education and usher in a glorious new era of educational nirvana?

No.

But neither are they likely to turn the modern university into some big-box, corporate dystopian nightmare.

Instead, MOOCs will be just one part of some much-needed experimentation in higher education. If this leads to paths for learning outside the university system, so be it.Institutional monoculture is a dangerous thing.

And if the university itself is changed in the process, that wouldn't be a bad thing either. The good sense of students and faculty will keep the inappropriate use of MOOCs to a minimum, and having a bit of an evolutionary shock could be just what the modern university needs to keep moving forward.

To the extent that MOOCs succeed, they'll have field tested valuable new educational tools; to the extent that they don't, they'll have taught reformers something about what doesn't work and that's valuable in its own right, too.