Early in the summer, a friend and I enrolled in Introduction to Sociology, the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) recently discussed by Princeton Professor Mitchell Duneier. Prof. Duneier taught 40,000 online students via six weeks of free reading assignments, lectures, and discussions, interspersed with weekly quizzes and two exams.
I quit three weeks into the course. The videos were distracting. I felt disconnected from the professor, as if the face I saw on-screen was a detached third party serving up neatly packaged bits of information for massive consumption. It felt sterile.
Prof. Duneier ‘s article praises the way technology can overcome the barriers of time and distance: thanks to video discussions and online forums, “my audience became as visible to me as the students in a traditional lecture hall.” But that’s the problem: audience, not students. Seated in front of a camera, the professor has no choice but to talk at his far-flung class, instead of talking to or with them. MOOCs are by nature impersonal: they’re massive. Despite his best efforts, a professor can’t possibly know 40,000 students, or even a fraction of them. They’re faceless, nameless, anonymous, blurring together into one conglomerate blob of class-takers. He can’t interact with them. He can’t gauge their needs and adjust his method and content accordingly. He doesn’t know them.
Likewise, students, aware of their anonymity, cannot possibly get to know their professor. There is no opportunity for trust- and relationship-building. My MOOC included a discussion group, but participation was limited to a handful of students; the other 39,990 of us simply watched. Prof. Duneier responded faithfully to student questions, but he was only able to answer those questions that generated the most online interest. He guesses that these were probably the “most meaningful” questions to his students, but without some authority present to guide the discussion, what’s to say those questions were most relevant, incisive, or important?
MOOCs will never rival brick-and-mortar classrooms in quality of education. With that said, Prof. Duneier’s article does highlight two real benefits of MOOCS. These courses provide opportunities for students who otherwise would have no such educational access. MOOCs also give professors a unique opportunity to test new methods, collect large numbers of student reviews, and investigate a wider range of student ideas and opinions. For these reasons we shouldn’t discount MOOCs entirely. But we shouldn’t mistake a MOOC for a classroom.