Having experienced the first iteration of Harvard Law School’s experiment with MOOCs (massively open online courses), I wanted to return to a prescient piece by David Noble. It is now 15 years old, but it is essential. Read it. Noble’s books (particularly Forces of Production) were formative parts of my education in my previous role as a historian of technology, so I may be partial. But because MOOCs probably do represent an important step in the future of higher education (along with the adjunctification of faculty, the weakening of “academic freedom,” and greater stratification of educational opportunities), anyone interested in thinking critically about the future of higher education (including legal education) needs to grapple with the promises and the challenges presented by MOOCs. I’ll offer my thoughts here.

First, the promise. MOOCs have been touted as expanding access to education. This is surely a worthwhile goal. But it is necessary to ask what is being provided. What kinds of education can MOOCs offer? The basic feature of MOOCs is making videos available in a structured format, along with perhaps some reading, some online discussions moderated by TAs, and discussion boards. Notably, this doesn’t replicate the kind of interactive experience that can happen in a physical classroom, where students can interrupt with questions or comments, and in which a good lecturer can engage with the room. Where education works, the students are not just an audience – they are active participants. MOOCs can allow some of this around the edges, but not to the same degree.

There is certainly something worthwhile in having a structured syllabus, thoughtful lectures, and tailored reading assignments. That goes without saying. But the transmission of information is not the same as education. Nor, for that matter, is the mere availability of information the same as understanding. The vision of MOOCs as a way to bring education closer to the broadcast model is of a piece with the by-now-familiar reduction of most interesting things to mere data.

But this bland, corporatized vision of education is not the only force within MOOC-world. The key element, and a contested one at that, is the word “open.” Openness suggests a level of interactivity and of pushing back that could be very healthy for education, if it is allowed to go forward. But the forces of openness and hackability have been met by the impulse to propertize courses. If we wish to be honest in our terminology, we may wish to call them “MOCs,” as they mock the ideal of openness. A class that is massive and online is presumably less appealing for students than one that is also “open.”

But classes that are massive an online are probably immensely appealing to the class of educational bureaucrats and education “policy” people who view education as an instrumental means to achieve competitiveness without talking about pervasive and systemic problems of inequality.

Hence my belief that MOOCs are of a piece with the turn to adjunct labor in higher education and the growing stratification between those students who get to be instructed by permanent faculty in real, live classes, and those who will get to be taught by part-timers who have no prospects of permanent employment, working off of pre-fab courses taught by celebrity profs (see the thoughtful exchange between the San Jose State University philosophy department and Michael Sandel). No doubt it can be very inspiring to see the nation’s best lecturers in action, and the access that these platforms provide is fantastic. But it does not constitute education. Education cannot be seamless; education cannot be smooth. Education is about being challenged by running into difficulty and confusion, and gradually making sense of it. Education requires friction in order to actually learn and digest the material and to make it one’s own. Education is not about the celebrity professors; it is about the students. It is not about imparting information from on high; it is about confronting the hard problems that are posed by being part of the natural world, or part of the social world, or part of a world of ideas.

So, my problem is not so much with MOOCs themselves (who could fault the desire to make thoughtful lectures and information available to the public?), than with the idea that these are the future of education. As a component of an education, they can be immensely valuable. But if they become a shortcut to teach larger classes with fewer resources, or a way to redesign education on the model of broadcast, they will be pernicious elements of the educational landscape, particularly in the context of legal education. Far from leveling the educational playing field, MOOCs have the potential to create even greater stratification.

Whether in the context of legal education or of undergraduate education, or otherwise, it is important to keep in mind what education is for. For those of us who want robust access to education, the internet can certainly help us in realizing that goal. But it would be deeply unfortunate if the drive for increased access led to an evisceration of the educational experience itself.


photo by LizMarie on Flickr