Three cheers for the Mickey MOOCs University?

Massive open online courses, like too many modern universities, can only offer qualifications, not education.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are part of an ‘avalanche’ that is coming for higher education, according to a report earlier this year by Sir Michael Barber.
The former policy wonk, now employed as the chief education adviser at publishers Pearson, claimed that online courses will challenge the traditional university, in its physical campus form at least.

There is a lot of excitement about the number of students enrolled on MOOCs since the big three US providers launched in 2012 – the ‘year of the MOOC’. The biggest provider, Coursera, now claims over 4.5million ‘Courserians’; edX has one million students, while for-profit Udacity has more than 750,000 students. Futurelearn, the UK’s first MOOC provider, was launched in December 2012 and is about to open its portfolio of courses. Futurelearn is led by the Open University, which has over 240,000 students of its own and an historical status as an innovative distance-learning institution.

Size is not everything. While universities and techies get enthusiastic about online delivery, some academics have been sceptical or hostile. But if you look at their arguments against MOOCs, they are often really good arguments in favour of them. Here are three of them.

First criticism: computers can’t replace ‘real shared experiences’ on campus, claimed Patrick McGhee, when he was vice-chancellor of the University of East London. What this means for the majority of undergraduates is the ‘student experience’ - an increasingly homogenised mush of school-like childcare, relationship- and self-esteem-building workshops and organised play activities. The student experience, therefore, has a therapeutic rather than an educational function; it keeps students happy. If MOOCs can’t provide this kind of ‘student experience’, then that’s one reason to cheer for MOOCs.

Second criticism: feminists have recently created a distributed open collaborative course (DOCC) to challenge MOOC thinking about the role of the instructor, and to value situated experience and emphasis, to share authority and responsibility and to offer what Alexandra Juhasz of Pitzer College calls a ‘more democratic and responsive model for technology enhanced learning’. DOCCs will combat the idea of there being a ‘best’ professor, the ‘best expert in the world’, that we can all learn from. Instead, they will encourage group learning.

If MOOCs encourage the idea of the ‘best’, and even the ‘best expert in the world’, who we can all learn from, rather than having students and lecturers sitting on bean bags sharing the therapeutic pretence of all being equal learners in a group, then another cheer for MOOCs!

Third criticism: despite rhetoric about MOOCs heralding the ‘end of medieval lectures’, the critics accuse them of just the opposite. Diana Laurillard, from the Institute of Education, University of London, argues: ‘They are not a revolution. So much of the pedagogy is this presentational, talking-heads sort of thing. We’ve been telling ourselves for years we need to get away from that pedagogy, and now here it is slamming back at us again.’

If medieval lectures given by ‘talking heads’ are making a comeback then there is a possibility that content is making a comeback over edutainment. Yet another cheer for MOOCs!

No patronising therapeutic student experiences, no narcissistic group activities led by non-judgemental, facilitating feminists, and no therapeutic, playful pedagogy. You almost want to shout ‘three cheers for the Mickey MOOCs University!’

Or at least we would be cheering if the award of a degree hadn’t become so devalued, a receipt for fees paid, regular attendance and submission of paperwork. Where’s the higher education in that? If going to university now means no more than paying for and getting a qualification, then neither MOOCs nor campus universities necessarily offer an education. But it is only campus universities that offer even the possibility of a higher education. Why?

The lesson we have to learn about MOOCs comes not from any think tank or university marketing department but from Socrates, who taught us what the essence of education is. He refused to write any of his thoughts or arguments down because, for him, education was entirely a personal relationship between the tutor and the student or students. What he had in mind was not an emotional or therapeutic relationship but an intellectual one. You have to know your students’ minds and how they think; in turn, students have to come into an apprenticeship relation with the teacher’s mind, knowledge, understanding and intellect.

Education for Socrates was always this sort of personal relationship. Even when we teach, not in the Agora but in the lecture theatre or classroom, the educational relationship is still a personal relationship between the teacher and every individual student. Only by knowing their students is it possible for teachers to discover what their students already know and what they need to know. This sort of personal relationship is impossible online. Discussing this recently with colleagues, physics teacher and school principal David Perks expressed the ideal of Socratic education more colloquially but concisely: ‘You can only begin to teach when you can see the whites of their eyes.’

Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby.

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