In a recent e-mail conversation with a friend who’s a few decades older than me, he reassured me that online education was a fad that will pass soon enough. He has seen these predictions before with correspondence courses, then with TV in the 1950s and 1960s, and then with distance learning via closed-circuit TV and cable in the 1980s and 1990s. Via Jonathan Rees, Nick Carr runs down the “Prehistory of the MOOC,” from the 1880s to the present:
Mail: Around 1885, Yale professor William Rainey Harper, a pioneer of teaching-by-post, said, “The student who has prepared a certain number of lessons in the correspondence school knows more of the subject treated in those lessons, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom.” Soon, he predicted, “the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our academies and colleges.”
Phonograph: In an 1878 article on “practical uses of the phonograph,” the New York Times predicted that the phonograph would be used “in the school-room in training children to read properly without the personal attention of the teacher; in teaching them to spell correctly, and in conveying any lesson to be acquired by study and memory. In short, a school may almost be conducted by machinery.”
Movies: “It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture,” proclaimed Thomas Edison in 1913. “Our school system will be completely changed in 10 years.”
Radio: In 1927, the University of Iowa declared that “it is no imaginary dream to picture the school of tomorrow as an entirely different institution from that of today, because of the use of radio in teaching.”
. . . . .
I wonder about this recurring motif of “ending education as we know it in ten years,” more or less. Is that a reflection of the brevity of the human lifespan and our lack of imagination in theorizing a future in which we won’t play a role? (Quite frankly, I think it’s also due to people refusing to learn the lesson over and over again that new technologies only succeed when people figure out how to turn them into entertainment, because–go figure–it’s easier to make money selling entertainment than selling education. Once technologies are successfully monetized by making them vessels for sharing or broadcasting entertainment, then gone is all talk of the utopian teacherless and school-free world in which all citizens of the demos will use technology for education and self-improvement.)
In his conclusion, Carr makes an important (and usually overlooked) point:
But, despite more than a century of hope and hype, the technologies of distance learning have had surprisingly little effect on traditional schooling. Colleges, in particular, still look and work pretty much as they always have. Maybe that’s because the right technology hasn’t come along yet. Or maybe it’s because traditional classroom schooling, for all its flaws and inefficiencies, has strengths that we either don’t grasp or are quick to overlook.
I think the significant difference today with online education is that there are for-profit companies who have decided to make a fast welfare buck off of the somewhat-improved technologies of Web 2.0, but only time will tell if this will become yet another technology that fails to transform education. Here’s my prediction: if online ed ends up killing F2F teaching at most public universities, it’s not because the technology is so awesome. It will be because our shallow and craven political leaders have almost entirely given up on the notion of higher education as a public good rather than a private possession, and because of the triumph of neoliberal values over intellectual and educational values. Neoliberal values had already eaten away a great deal of our public universities and colleges. Will we permit the greedy masters of online ed to slay the goose in search of yet more golden eggs?
Go read Jonathan’s latest post on his experience as a MOOC student, “in which [he] waste[s] [his] time.” Heh. He identifies one of the key ingredients that makes classroom education essentially un-replicable even with Web 2.0:
I think a lot of those strengths [of face-to-face classrooms] involve the effects of proximity. I would argue that the intensity of the urge to play with your phone while someone is speaking correlates directly to their proximity to you. If there’s fifteen people sitting in a circle, you won’t do it even if you’re sorely tempted because you don’t want to be rude. If you’re at the back of a room with a hundred other people, you’ll do it because you know the speaker will never see you. If it’s Jeremy Adelman in Princeton speaking to 70,000 plus people around the world a week and a half ago for a course in which the students aren’t really being graded, most of the audience will open up a new tab on their browser and check their e-mail before the first multiple choice question ever flashes before their eyes.
Professors aren’t just educators, they’re enforcers. If they leave the room in the middle of a college class, it won’t be like 3rd grade or an AOL chat room, but little learning will occur. When the professor never leaves a studio in Princeton, the result is similar.
You betcha! Now, if you will excuse me, I must go and be proximate to a classroom full of students. I know: how dreary. How utterly devoid of imagination! And yet, how effective. (A stray thought: most of what is accomplished in meetings called by administrators can be done by circulating information and memos via e-mails. So how many administrators pushing online ed are comfortable going to all-email or chatroom meetings? Not too many, huh? Gee I wonder why not?)
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