The MOOCs are here! Every few years or decades, some new idea threatens to revolutionize higher education and right now that is the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) just about the hottest idea around. The promise of MOOCs is that large numbers of people can learn from the leading specialists in each field. There have been problems on how individuals who take the courses will earn college credit, and how one might string a series of these courses together for either a degree or a certificate, but frankly those questions miss the point of whether this is a good method of instruction. While a few college presidents and other leaders in higher education have gotten on the bandwagon, most have taken a more reserved wait-and-see attitude.
Taking a much longer view of the MOOC, one quickly realizes that there truly is nothing new under the sun. Every epoch has had its new technology which threatens to completely change the way we deliver higher education.
Back in the Middle Ages, students would attentively listen to their professors and copy down every word he said. These notes were then passed around so that others could also gain wisdom from them. Reading the notes was the equivalent of attending the course. Then in the fifteenth century a revolutionary technology came along which made all of that obsolete: the printing press. Professors now could publish their ideas in books and do away with the classroom entirely. But that never happened. The books became something which augmented the learning experience in the classroom, not which replaced it.
With the rise of the nation state and efficient mail delivery, some enterprising educators decided they could do away with the classroom. They would mail out the lectures and other classroom materials and students could read and process them at their own pace. It was the first widespread example of asynchronous learning techniques. Correspondence schools were going to do away with traditional higher education as we knew it. Fortunately they did not. It proved to be a boon to many who were place bound, but it did not eliminate the traditional classroom.
When television was about to become ubiquitous in American households, educational leaders realized that they could televise the classroom and allow students at great distances to participate in the learning environment. One of the most widespread experiments in this early distance learning technique was Sunrise Semester (CBS 1957-82). It truly was a massive open course. I am old enough to remember awaking at around 6 a.m. to catch the program. As a grad student I watched many classes this way. I never registered for any, never sought credit for my seat time which usually included cereal and toast. It seems that most people engaged with the technology exactly that same way. It did not do away with the learning environment of the traditional classroom. Interestingly enough, the preliminary research on MOOCs indicates that exactly the same thing is happening. Lots of people drop in, few do the entire course, even fewer seek credit.
Since the end of Sunrise Semester, easily a score of new technologies have come along and time and again various pundits have predicted the end of traditional higher education as we know it. Some of these technologies have successfully been incorporated into the classroom. There are few faculty members who do not use the richness of the internet to enhance the classroom experience. Millions of students now take courses through various mediated technologies offered both by traditional colleges and universities as well as those offered by the new crop of for-profit universities, such as the University of Phoenix. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, "Rumors of the demise of traditional higher education have been greatly exaggerated."
The traditional classroom experience, as it has come to us from the Middle Ages, is still the best -- and most efficient -- way of imparting knowledge. While new technologies can enhance and augment that experience, while new teaching methods and styles will continue to capture the imaginations of new generations of students and teachers, the best education, the gold standard by which we evaluate all new technologies and techniques, remains what President James Garfield described as the best college education: "Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and the student on the other." Perhaps this was a bit of nostalgia on Garfield's part, since Hopkins had been his professor when he was a student at Williams College. But those of us who have been blessed to be active in classroom teaching for any period of time know that it is the direct interaction between student and professor that makes all the difference in the world.