Column | Oct. 24

What we can't learn from MOOCs

It’s Friday. Midterms are over for all but the unluckiest. For a week we’ve been herding into lecture halls to take exams alongside hundreds of our peers, bonding over horrifying schedules and desperately waiting for break. Now it is upon us, and many leave campus and their friends for the week, knowing that all will still be there come November.

Now imagine if it were not still here. After all, what use does a campus serve in the 21st century? We’re in the age of massive open online courses, when knowledge can be gained for free on the Internet. Forget the elitism of Ivy schools — all the college anyone could need is online!

Not so fast. Despite the hype, the professors who teach MOOCs, as they are called, are less than enthusiastic about their potential for replacing traditional university education. A survey this spring in the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals an intriguing level of cynicism regarding the format. More than half of surveyed professors did not find the course they taught as rigorous as a comparable traditional course, and less than 30 percent thought that MOOC students should be given formal credit for their work.

Clearly, something besides professors who think they’ve found an educational panacea are behind the enthusiasm. What is it?

MOOCs can be seen, in a way, as an extension of what might be called the industrial model of education. When compulsory education began during the industrial revolution, the schools it created were modeled after the same industrial model as contemporary factories — teachers were the manufacturers, pounding out educated students in an assembly line, shifting them from one grade to the next until they’re sufficiently taught, then releasing them. This model has been pervasive in primary and secondary education — as our suite of quality-control standardized tests testify — and has moved into higher education as well, as large lectures replace the tutor-student relationships which were the standard since Socrates.

The problem is, while books, films and other educational materials can be mass-produced, education itself cannot. Beyond introducing students to various essential facts, the most effective instructional method is engaging students on a personal level, responding to their individual needs and encouraging learning through collaborating to work out the concepts. I can be shown the derivation of the quadratic formula or the implicit theorem all I want, but it doesn’t mean anything until I work it out for myself, often outside of class with the insights and prodding of my peers and instructors. In remote education, collaborating is clunky and often infeasible, diminishing the value of the lecture. The same student density which allows us to share midterm gripes constantly also makes these very classes worth it.

If interpersonal, collaborative education is effective in mathematical and scientific instruction, it’s essential to the liberal arts. While we can learn facts and skills from videos, it’s far harder to pick up critical thinking, a functional personal ethics system or civic engagement through videos. These, more than information exchange, are the goals of a college education and are hardly accomplished through coursework alone. Indeed, the value of our undergraduate experience stems as much from learning new modes of thinking and perspectives from our peers. Presenting mono-directional MOOCs as a replacement for college devalues the personal development essential to a university’s mission.

Princeton recognizes this — outside of class, we have plenty occasion to learn, from famous speakers and each other, and within courses, discussing and challenging ideas is the basis of the preceptorial system. However much we complain about precept, it’s hard to argue that a system basically consisting of massive lectures alone would work better. As a one-way exchange of information, lectures — and the MOOCs modeled after them — may as well be modern textbooks.

And here we see the proper role of MOOCs in modern education. These lectures and the accompanying materials can be invaluable for those outside of a college environment or as a substitution for a textbook within, but will never replace a well-built course’s collaborative component. Their rich presentation of information, ability to communicate with the professor-author in real time and low cost of distribution make them ideal, however, for replacing the expensive, dry and heavy piles of paper we all know and hate.

In her column last month, Lauren Davis suggested we try out a “flipped” lecture system, wherein students watch MOOC-type lecture material on their own time and discuss or apply it in class, and indeed several courses, including COS 226: Algorithms and Data Structures, have begun experimenting with this format. In theory, this allows instructor resources to be focused on the most important part of learning — the synthesis and application of the material.

Remote learning, by very nature of being remote and therefore decreasing the influence of the campus as a community, cannot provide a well-rounded college education to all. So as we integrate technology into the lecture hall, we must not lean on MOOCs as our only way of opening access. They can provide knowledge to students around the world, but it is only through initiatives to ensure that bright students everywhere have access to college that we can provide equal access to that far more important resource, education.

Bennett McIntosh is a sophomore from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at bam2@princeton.edu.
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