Friday, October 4, 2013

MOOCs are not the problem

I’d like to talk like a philosopher for a few minutes—that means that I want to make naive, sweeping generalizations, and to ask some questions that most people think are kind of pointless.  Of course, talk about education very often has those qualities, even when there are no philosophers around.  Maybe I’ll fit right in.

I think that liberal arts colleges are always in a battle.  If they didn’t need students to show up in high enough numbers to pay the bills, who knows what their educational programs would look like?  But they do need students, and so they do try to change in ways that can interest and reconcile bill-paying parents.  This is an old problem.  The MOOC phenomenon won’t take away our students—I just don’t believe that anyone is out there thinking:  Hey, should I go to an expensive, private, liberal arts college....or just take a bunch of MOOCs instead?  Even when there are more and better MOOCs this will not happen much. 

But I think that MOOCs do indeed contribute to the ways in which we see the methods and purposes of education shifting.  And that does indeed affect what bills-paying parents want to see in their kids’ expensive colleges.  Parents, almost all parents, want their kids to get jobs.  If we told them that the education we offer would not help their kids get jobs, we’d never see their kids.  Likewise, if we told parents that we could, for the same money, get their kids jobs without having to go through four years of school, they’d pay the money.  That is, very few parents really care at all about what “liberal arts” means or contains.  They have purely practical concerns. 

I’m not knocking that impulse.  Folks need jobs.  It’s bad luck for us that our institutions ever came to be seen as useful in that way, but there we are.  And so we, not wanting to become purely vocational training centers, have developed an interesting kind of sales shuffle.  Liberal arts is about nurturing the spirit in a thousand ways, in line with the ideals of the ancients, and the pursuit of the Good...and it will also get you a kick ass job.  And just to make sure, we’re changing our curriculum and our methods to make sure that they have practical value.  Future doctor, you don’t have to take Ethical Theory, for we can now offer you Ethics and Medicine, a values-oriented course with practical value.

So as we try harder and harder to filter liberal arts goodness through practically valuable pursuits, the whole idea of what it means to be in college changes.  There are some things that I can’t do in a MOOC, and those are just the sort of things that are less and less part of our notion of education.

For example, what if I believed that the real essence of liberal arts education was composed of conversation?  Conversation with my colleagues, with my students, with my intellectual ancestors and descendants?  What if I believed that the point was to pass down, and participate in, the human search for self-understanding?  Those of you who read Michael Oakeshott will recognize that picture.  For Oakeshott, the point of education was to carry on a tradition of inquiry...not to produce anything, not to decide anything, not to yield any practical payoffs.  It’s a tradition of talking together, and especially one by which students are brought to fluency by teachers who immerse them in the conversation of the ages.

To contemporary ears, it sounds batty.  We are encouraged to be practical, to be marketable, to use the latest technology, to open the classroom to all, to assess rigorously, and so on.  To say that technology isn’t needed in my classroom is to say, virtually, that I am a dinosaur and a bad teacher.  To say that I have nothing practical to impart is to admit that I’m here (on the faculty) as a kind of indulgence, a nice enrichment, but not a key player.  To say that it is impossible to assess the most important “goals” of my teaching is to confirm, to some administrators, that I teach nothing. 

The tide has shifted so that where once it would have been possible to say:  “There are really important things we do here that can’t be done through a MOOC,” we will now say:  “If it can’t be done through a MOOC it is either worthless, undemocratic, or both.”
So I don’t think that the MOOC phenomenon is a threat.  (Some of my administrators do, but they’re wrong.)  I think that it is an indicator and a criterion.  It indicates our growing comfort with the idea of education as transferable product.  And it will become a criterion of pedagogically respectable aims. 

Liberal arts colleges are being pushed in this direction, but it should be obvious that they can’t head that way forever without giving up what makes them distinctive.   Resisting the MOOC movement sends a nice signal about how we feel about where we’re headed.  But nothing much will change if MOOCs turn out to be nothing but another passing fad.  To my mind, no institution has had the courage to say:  “We’re not a training center, and what we offer is not practical.  Go somewhere else for that.  Come here to inherit the questions and conversations of the human search for meaning.”  Until someone has that courage, we won’t really know what hope there is for liberal arts colleges.    


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