I’m Still Afraid of the Big Bad MOOC

On his blog, Via Meadia, Walter Russell Mead commented on my June 26 post on this site and presented a very thoughtful analysis of the MOOC phenomenon and its likely impact on higher education.  Mead likened MOOCs to Craigslist which siphoned off the bulk of the classified advertising that had formerly been a major source of profit for most newspapers.  In the same way, Mead suggested, MOOCs will capture the most profitable course offerings-those in which one professor lectures to several hundred students-leaving colleges to offer their more expensive small classes just as Craiglist left newspapers with their expensive foreign correspondents.

This may be one possibility.  MOOCifiers, however, dream of a world in which all or most classes will be taught mainly in the form of MOOC lectures.  Even the five-student seminar on Babylonian archaeology mentioned by Mead could be MOOCified and offered to the several hundred schools that currently boast such a class.

There are many different modes of teaching.  I discovered some years ago that what I do best is lecture– being, if you will, the “sage on the stage.”  I have lectured to small groups, large groups and even given lectures to tens of thousands of viewers via a predecessor of the MOOC, the Open University of Japan (formerly the University of the Air), a distance-learning college launched by the Japanese government in 1985.

Much as I like to lecture, and as proficient as I think I am as a lecturer, I know that an education consisting entirely of large lectures is shallow and deficient.  Like a good textbook, a good lecture can provide an introduction to and overview of the main topics and questions in a given area but it cannot offer much depth or respond to student questions and concerns. Indeed, students often have questions, concerns and confusions that someone teaching from a film studio would not be able to anticipate.  Some years ago at Cornell, I delivered a lecture on primary elections to a large class.  I had spent a good deal of time preparing the lecture and I presented what I thought was an excellent overview of the history of primaries, the legal issues surrounding primaries and the impact of  primaries on the party system.  As I was leaving the lecture hall, a student came running up to me holding a notebook in which he seemed to have taken copious notes.  The student said, “Professor Ginsberg, that was very interesting but I missed one point.  Did you say that the primary came before or after the general election?”

Walter Russell Mead says correctly that the large lecture is the least expensive form of education.  Unfortunately, it is also the least effective and least important.  Much as I like to lecture, I recognize that of the various elements of current pedagogy-lectures, seminars, workshops, reading, group and independent projects, laboratories and so forth-the lecture, though useful, is the least important.

Accordingly, I have no difficulty reaffirming the position that I asserted in my June 26 Minding the Campus post.  First, classes based entirely on a MOOC model should not receive college credit. They lack sufficient intellectual content.  Second, institutions that substantially MOOCify their curricula should not be accredited   In my view, these are no longer colleges. The professorate, for its part, has a public as well as a selfish interest in pressuring their schools and accrediting agencies on these points. College administrators might think about their own interests in this matter.  In a MOOCified world there would be less need for deans, deanlets and deanlings.  On second thought, every cloud does have a silver lining.

As Walter Russell Mead correctly observed, I have no personal stake in this matter.  Not only is my job not threatened but I could probably prosper in a MOOCified environment.   I like performing for a large audience and for the camera.  My university wants me to allow my freshman introductory course to be filmed .  All fine and good, but this activity should not be confused with education.

By the way, one anonymous commentator on my post declared that I was “grabbing leather” and hoping to hang on to my saddle until the buzzer sounded.  He claimed to have learned this phrase from “rodeo bronc” riders. Readers of Minding the Campus attend rodeos? Give me a break. As it happens, I have owned several horses and have some experience in the equestrian community.  I’ve never heard this term.  Perhaps my critic meant to say that he learned the term on Rodeo Drive. In a MOOCified environment these sorts of confusions could never be clarified.


  • Benjamin Ginsberg

    Benjamin Ginsberg is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Hopkins Center for Advanced Governmental Studies in Washington, DC.

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One thought on “I’m Still Afraid of the Big Bad MOOC”

  1. “First, classes based entirely on a MOOC model should not receive college credit. They lack sufficient intellectual content.”
    What does delivery mechanism have to do with content? That’s like saying “books based entirely on a Kindle model should not be read. They lack sufficient intellectual content.”
    And yes, at least one MTC reader attends rodeos . . .

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