The rise of the MOOCs, that is, massive open online courses, so labeled by the Times, gives us a clear picture of the future of American education and, consequently, of America. Thus, we should be asking ourselves serious questions about the desirable and undesirable forms soon to found in online education. To evaluate these courses and programs, we should understand both: (1) how MOOCs can be a distinct improvement over traditional classroom courses; and (2) how they can be devastatingly inferior to traditional classroom programs.
How MOOCs can be Markedly Superior to Classroom Courses
The present criticisms of the quality of the content of these online programs will quickly be answered as money and creativity are aimed at making various approaches more attractive to students. These courses may well be integrated into other forms of media programming, along with innovative relationships with social media. When consumers desire more and more of these courses, money and competitive approaches will follow. With regard to quality of the presentations of these courses, there is no reason to think that online courses will not develop programs that engage students in ways that are impossible for the traditional classroom to duplicate.
Individualized study of online material will be supported by well-established programs that can respond to student successes and errors in ways that are as explanatory and encouraging as anything a human teacher could provide. Given a data base of the types of errors made in a given topic of study, online students may receive more precise and heuristic responses from those courses than were they to study this material in a traditional classroom, especially in the large lecture-hall format. In addition, students receive immediate responses for their efforts, as opposed to submitting homework one day and having it returned a day or so later in the traditional classroom structure. Moreover, the responses received by online students can be more complete and informed, because they are selected in light of a given student's own past successes and mistakes in that particular online program. Course responses to students can be further informed by how numerous past students have responded to this course or program.
The particular course within which a student is working may well be part of a wider program, such that examples given a student in one course may be drawn from previous courses a student has completed or is simultaneously completing. Online courses are, and will be, for the most part, individualized study, though it is possible to design a kind of team-study approach that was introduced thirty years ago. As we compare the concept of online courses with traditional teaching, we note that traditional teaching is far from perfect. For example, ask a teacher you know if there is not a readily identifiable distinction between two types of teachers.
Type 1 teachers are excited about the academic content they teach, and they want their students to share their enthusiasm and joy of discovery. Their passion is readily detectable by their fellow teachers, because of their frequent references to what they have read or seen, and how they have used that content in their classes. Their interest in what they are studying, in one way or another, enters into their informal discussions with their peers. Their commitment to teaching is prominent in their talk about students and teaching. They show excitement over research on teaching, and are usually liked by students. It will be a challenge for online courses to prove equal or superior to courses taught by Type 1 teachers, which is not to say that it cannot be accomplished. The enthusiasm of these teachers is also a challenge to online courses, but we know that there are cases where media presentations can be quite energizing and focusing for some people.
Type 2 teachers are readily detectable by their informal discussions with their peers in which they typically reference people in unflattering ways. Gossip is the prominent characteristic of these interactions. Students may be mentioned, but their focus is clearly on their deficiencies or the deficiencies of other professionals. At the university level, these teachers have few books in their offices, read no academic journals, and their conversations seldom include anything academic. Students avoid them to the extent that it is possible. We expect that a reasonably well-constructed online course could outperform a course taught by a Type 2 teacher.
There are courses and fields of study that present a challenge to online programming. If we imagine a course in, say, contemporary pragmatism that is structured online in the manner of an introduction to algebra, we see that the living and dynamic content that is encountered in the context of classroom interaction, which involves interpretation of the meanings of words, statements and conclusions, is necessarily absent, because the interpretations of other students in the ensuing discussions are both semantically expansive and enthusiasm-inducing. A critical factor in the success of such courses is, of course, the teacher. We could conclude that these courses are for later or graduate study. However, we can imagine interactions among students and instructors on some form of social media.
How Online Courses can be Dreadfully Inferior to Classroom Courses
Many of the MOOCs will be offered by private corporations. In attempts to make these courses popular and relevant, we expect that there will be a move to match courses to specific occupations or roles, which means the labeling of competing courses as "unrelated" or even "irrelevant," which would be applied to those courses that many have considered a necessary part of a liberal education. The term "liberal" is unfortunate in this context, because of its current use as a label in political talk. In its older, educational meaning, the term referred to educational programs that supported the growth or development of students' minds. The opposite of a liberal education was narrow training in a limited range of specific activities, what might be referred to today as technical education. The idea was that any area of human achievement can inspire some to see unexpected relationships in other areas of human progress. In the rebellious days on campuses in the 1960s, Shakespeare was claimed to be irrelevant by many students - claims that suggested they had never read the plays. The point is that well-educated people are slower to advance the term "irrelevant" than are the less informed.
It is not a stretch of logic to expect that online educational-corporations will either be corporation friendly, or they will be subsidiaries of major corporations. Beyond the possibility of deliberately omitting mention of certain events not flattering to one or more corporations, there could be the possible effort to promote, in very sophisticated ways, ideological distortions. Imagine a course in economics, or one in which economics is an important historical topic. Perhaps the views of John Maynard Keynes and those of Milton Friedman are being contrasted. Biased instruction could present one or the other of these economists as superior to the other in such a way that the rejected ideas are considered simple-minded and wrong. The technical definition of indoctrination in educational theory is the presentation of ideas or conclusions in such a way that alternative views are considered both false and dangerous.
We do not want to unreflectively slide into thinking that such indoctrination is an appropriate teaching technique, even if students are informed of the course orientation at the outset. We know from human experience, that as people use ideas and theories, they discover that these ideas are in need of reconstruction, especially as some ideas clash with other ideas. A sound educational background would equip students with the habits of mind to detect when ideas are being significantly slanted to one narrow view. For example, every student should know the first rule of criticism: state the view to be criticized in such a manner that those who hold that view can accept your characterization of that view.
As many have reported, the cable networks hardly mentioned the consequences of the great oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but we learn from Deborah Dupres' book, Vampire of Macondo, how devastating the conditions are to this day. This is a recent unmistakable example of how corporate friendly courses can manage any issues that reflect poorly on any corporation. If "news" organizations can omit reporting on embarrassments to corporations, there is no reason to think that online courses will be any truer to the facts. Every corporation desires that their missteps become unmentionables in public media. If all such cases of corporate malfeasance directly relevant to the public good are sanitized out of online courses, then what remains is a serious distortion of reality.
We will see rooms full of interns sitting at computers working through online courses, while checking for any sign of criticism of corporate wrong doing. It has been reported that corporations have purchased, at a substantial price, friendly reports from various professors at major universities that deny climate change and the devastating effects of oil spills on the environment. This suggests that there will be no difficulty finding notable professors who will give their approval to online educational programs that effectively orient their content in the direction approved by the various corporations to which that content is related. Science will be cited when it benefits the corporations, and attacked when it does not. This gives a new meaning to academic freedom.