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Massive Online Open Courses: From McLuhan to MOOC

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In this summer of 2012 the buzz in the world of higher education is about massive online open courses, or "MOOC." It seems that cyber-prophet Marshall McLuhan saw this coming.

As a classroom teacher for over 35 years who is about to set a virtual foot onto the campus of MOOC U (my neuroethics course will be offered by Coursera in January, the other major entrant into MOOC being EdX), I wonder what I'm getting into. I have a feeling I'm not alone among my dozens of colleagues in this regard. Surely they also wonder if the transmission of knowledge to which they've given much of their lives is about to undergo an unpredictable transformation in which they will play a part. University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson is dubious that the classroom artistry of the truly fine teacher can be captured in the online experience.

Edmundson has a point. I know exactly what he means when he compares those precious moments of didactic flow in a physical classroom to jazz improvisation.

Yet the precise contours of the MOOC experience and its implications for higher education remain a mystery to everyone, including the investors, institutions and instructors. All we really know is that (1) the sheer number of potential online students is mind-boggling and hard to resist; and (2) the "production values" need to be far better than those for the university-produced online lectures I've watched in the past few years.

The MOOCs need to hit that sweet spot between two hours of a static lecturer-focused camera and the flash-and-dash of TED Talks. But at this stage that still doesn't tell us much about what to expect.

In search of an oracle, I stumbled upon a piece co-authored by Marshall McLuhan in 1967 in, of all places, Look magazine (many teachers worry that online students will look but not think). The article forecast the learning experience of "The Class of 1989"; the same issue included a long essay by a Look senior editor on "The Generation Gap." Just as young people were demanding more "relevance" in schools, McLuhan recites the longstanding progressive critique of standardized education as "bodies of knowledge" and lectures, the latter seen "one of the least effective [mode of education] ever devised by man," soon to go the way of all other "mechanized production line[s]."

Instead, McLuhan wrote, "the new modes of instantaneous, long-distance human communication -- radio, telephone, television -- are linking the world's people in a vast net of electric circuitry that creates a new depth and breadth of personal involvement and events and breaks down the old, traditional boundaries that made specialization possible." McLuhan thus foresaw the end of the mass-produced student. "When computers are properly used, in fact, they are almost certain to increase individual diversity. A worldwide network of computers will make all of mankind's factual knowledge available to all students everywhere in a matter of minutes or seconds."

Not bad for 1967, just as the Pentagon's packet switching technology was indeed laying the groundwork for "a worldwide network of computers."

And what of the predicted decline of specialization? When I look at Coursera's course list I see deep silos of knowledge, with titles like "Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act," "Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation," "Functional Programming Principles in Scala," and "An Introduction to the U.S. Food System." To be sure, these classes are joined by traditional disciplinary survey courses, but there is, as yet, no sense of a systematic curriculum. Among the original Western European institutions of higher learning MOOC U most resembles the University of Paris, dominated by faculty masters, rather than the Oxford generalist approach.

Fortunately, online students are not obliged to risk life and limb negotiating the often treacherous travel lanes of the Middle Ages to reach centers of higher learning. At this early stage of MOOC the only prerequisite is access to the Internet, reasonably safe as long as their anti-virus software is up-to-date. In that sense the playing field of massive online education is leveled to an historically remarkable degree, though it doesn't look like the lecture format so depreciated by McLuhan is going away anytime soon; indeed, MOOC seems to be reinforcing it.

As for the ultimate content and governance of online higher ed, perhaps student demand will end up determining the MOOC curriculum, as it did in Bologna, often regarded as the world's first university. McLuhan thought that, with so much opportunity at their fingertips, teachers would no longer be able to assume a slavish lecture hall audience but would "have a high stake in generating interest and involvement for his students." If that turns out to be true then MOOC U will require a substantial investment of time, energy and imagination.