11/27/2012 06:06 pm ET | Updated Jan 27, 2013



Can people really learn much through online courses enrolling tens of thousands of students? Some major universities are betting the answer is, "Yes!" Such venerable names as Harvard, MIT and Stanford are joining forces with new companies called Coursera and Udacity and edX and others to launch MOOCs, massive open online courses, that, by some accounts are enrolling students into the hundreds of thousands in single courses -- totaling in the millions nationwide.

Count me among the wary bystanders watching the flash mob frenzy over MOOCs. MOOCs certainly may have a place in a world rife with wiki-knowledge, but they will hardly solve the tuition-price spiral, mediocre learning outcomes, the American aversion to math and science, barriers to higher learning for low income students, and the pernicious effects of big time sports on collegiate ethics, to name just some of the problems on the higher education fix-it agenda. Indeed, MOOCs might actually aggravate some of these problems by further commoditizing the hard work of genuine higher teaching and learning.

The hype around MOOCs makes me wonder if some university presidents caught Black Friday fever -- stuff that once had value heaped-up on the discount aisles, mobs whipped up into acquisition frenzy, stores opening earlier and earlier on Thanksgiving night to gain competitive advantage. Harsh? Let me be even more pointed: is the MOOC movement really about improving higher learning or just scratching the crass commercialism itch?

For all of their exaltation of rational thought, universities can manifest some stunningly lemming-like behaviors when it comes to competition. Irrational fear of being left behind in the competitive rush to embrace MOOCs may have been a driver of the governance embarrassment at the University of Virginia, where the board chair who wanted faster innovation tried to force out the president who embraced incrementalism, meaning "it's good to think before leaping off the cliff."

Now, not surprisingly, comes the news that institutions are looking at ways to "monetize" the MOOC. Knowledge is free, but credits and credentials cost money -- and prestige costs even more. That's how the economics of higher education really work, and the MOOC movement is unlikely to make a prestigious credential more egalitarian despite the current fervor for the "free" part of the online courses.

In a certain sense, the MOOC is hardly a new idea. Consider the concept: large amounts of knowledge produced by exceptional minds becomes massively available to the general public -- we used to call that concept "the library." Some of us are old enough to remember libraries. We used to go to these buildings to get access to something called "books" in which the wisdom of the ages resided. With a "book," we could access the latest thinking of the author at Harvard or Stanford; even more, we could have direct access to the original authors -- Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Locke, Rousseau, Steinbeck. Imagine! Everyone in the entire world having access to the original source material. Oh, and for free. Yes. The free lending library in your own town might still have copies of The Republic, Poetics, Hamlet, whatever. Or, you can download them free on your e-book. What a concept!

Libraries used to have something called "encyclopedias." Yep, the encyclopedia pre-dated Wikipedia by many centuries. Knowledge has always been broadly available to people who want to acquire it. Heck, we've even had access to the lectures of famous professors for years through tapes or CDs of "great courses" advertised in various popular magazines.

Before I'm relegated to the Luddite Hall of Shame, a defense: I have several Kindles, smartphones, laptops and more techno gizmos than I have time to use. I have pushed my own university, Trinity in Washington, to keep up with technological innovation, to adopt the online course management platform known as Moodle, to offer hybrid and online courses and programs. I even find time to keep two blogs going. I tweet, ergo, I must be technologically semi-literate.

But I'm having a hard time understanding how the rush to MOOCs will solve the nation's real educational challenges.

I get the concept. Famous professors at prestigious universities offer their courses online to the world. Forget, for a minute, that generations of parents have done everything short of homicide (I'm guessing 'short of'...) to get their kids lined-up for admission to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, UVA, and the rest of the big names. Now millions of people can skip the anxiety of waiting for the thick envelope while still having the joy of soaring through the intellectual stratosphere with Professor Cratchit on Macroeconomic Theory and bragging that they're "going to Harvard." Really!

But can real learning occur through a MOOC? There's an odd paradox at work today in higher education's rush to prove that it really can change, that it's not afraid of "disruption" -- the latest fad word for deep change. Nothing about MOOCs thus far proves that they improve student learning outcomes. MOOCs make knowledge delivered by prestigious university faculty available to the masses, but availability of knowledge is not the same as learning.

MOOCs are, in some ways, intensely self-reflexive exercises for elite universities who believe that their faculty and their courses are much better than those that any other college might offer, and hence, that the learning experience will be better simply because a prestigious university name is associated with the course. This reasoning is a fallacy; great teaching and serious learning occurs on many campuses that are not famous, places whose entire student population would hardly amount to 1 percent MOOC.

The real educational challenge in our nation today is not a lack of availability of knowledge, or that too many students can't get into the Ivy League, but rather, the fact that too many students emerge from K-12 schools unprepared for college, unable to engage in higher learning effectively, and equally unprepared for even basic work. Some philanthropists who are investing heavily in education reform believe that broader access to online learning will effectively remediate the deficiencies of K-12 education while also making college access more affordable for low income students.

Such reasoning belies the realities of teaching under-prepared students who are often also deeply impoverished. Students who need a great deal of remediation really need "live" instructors coaching them not only in formal classes but also in workshops and tutorial sessions. Yes, online tools can be very helpful -- at Trinity, our first year Math instructors use online tools like Pearson's My Math Lab to supplement instruction. But our experience with large numbers of under-prepared students from the city is a good case study in the plain fact that instructors and students need to see each other regularly in order to make real learning progress. And, moreover, such students also need the plethora of campus services that a MOOC cannot offer -- health services, counseling, academic advising, child care, financial coaching, and even emergency housing. A MOOC instructor will not sit for hours with a pregnant student to help her figure out how to plan for her new life while finishing her Calculus and Shakespeare courses this semester.

Beyond the question of whether the MOOC movement will actually improve learning, some advocates also see MOOCs as a way to help make higher education more affordable. While affordability is certainly a worthy goal, there is no evidence currently that the offering universities will broadly transcript MOOC credit at vastly reduced rates so that students can earn prestigious degrees more cheaply. While much of the hype about MOOCs has focused on the fact that they are "free" to the general public, in fact, what tuition really pays for is the credit that accumulates to a degree. While a few universities have talked about monetizing MOOC credits, a systematic plan has yet to emerge. Universities who spend tens of millions of dollars on their brand management will hardly give away their credits cheaply -- or allow institutions they consider inferior to make money by charging for transcripting credits derived from their "free" MOOC offerings.

A friend recently said to me, quite declaratively, that 25 years from now there will be no more college campuses. He's a savvy tech investor, but like so many tech wizards, his focus is purely on the delivery of content. Colleges and universities are far more than simply places where knowledge gets decanted from the "sage on the stage" to a collection of passive vessels absorbing every erudite word. Indeed, since Socrates lectured under the tree, the most important part about higher learning is not how the professor chooses to share his or her knowledge, but rather, how the students engage with the teacher in the dialogue of learning, pushing, challenging, arguing and debating every step of the way. And, quite often, that vociferous debate extends well beyond the space under the tree to the dining hall and quad and dorms and cafes and late night skunkworks over flat beer or stale coffee. The experience of community is a major part of effective teaching and learning. Yes, the dialogues can and do also now occur online -- but the learning value of online pedagogy diminishes considerably when the voices grow distant, depersonalized and ultimately disengaged from real human contact.

MOOCs surely will have their place in the long menu of collegiate options in America. But they will not replace the main course for the majority of students or faculty on most campuses -- and yes, most teachers and students will still be on campuses even of they meet occasionally over a MOOC.