In response to yesterday’s MOOC Roundup, one of my fellow faculty members sent me a pointer to an article by Jennifer M. Morton in The Chronicle of Higher Education that was just published today: Unequal Classrooms: What Online Education Cannot Teach. I would have included the article in the roundup, if it had come out a little earlier. Here is a paragraph from the middle of the article:
MOOCs would seem like a promising way to increase access to education for those who cannot afford the steep price of a liberal-arts education. And indeed, my students often end up sitting in crowded lecture halls being lectured at by a professor who doesn’t even know their names—as is the case for many students across the country. Many of my students also work, some full time, or have families of their own, and they struggle to fulfill the course requirements for graduation. However, the adoption of online education by large public universities threatens to harm the very students for whom a college education is an essential leg up into the middle class.
Prof. Morton makes a point that several other skeptics of MOOCs have made—that a big chunk of college is the interaction in the classroom (between students as well as between faculty and students), and that is mostly missing from MOOCs. For students from poverty-stricken communities, college may be the only place to learn the “practical skills to navigate middle-class institutions”, and MOOCs deprive them of this learning. The learning may not be an explicit part of the curriculum of the colleges, but it is implicit in the use of a college degree as a ticket into the middle class.
While I do not regard social mobility as a primary goal of college education, for many people that is the main justification for public universities. It seems a bit unlikely that MOOC-based education will serve that purpose well, even if it manages to convey curricular content adequately (which has not yet been convincingly shown either).