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Every other day, one of my academic friends is holding forth about how MOOCs will make us professors obsolete. It’s just hype. It’s nonsense.
Yes, it is true that it is much cheaper to deliver knowledge via a MOOC. Yes, it is true that MOOCs can bring knowledge to the hinterlands. Yes, it is true that MOOCs will allow us universities to determine which applicants are best. And, yes, it is true that some students can use MOOCs, either to earn some course credit or to cover prerequisites.
But, no it is not true that MOOCs will make any of the major research universities less desirable in my or my childrens’ lifetime. Why do I know this? Because if teaching students the basic subject manner was the primary reason for attending college, we professors would have already been obsolete decades ago. Every major academic area has had textbooks which are at least as well structured and organized as what is delivered by a good lecturer and what can possibly delivered by a MOOC. Again, any student who is interested just in the transmission of basic knowledge could do so 20 years ago, in the absence of MOOCs. And most good textbooks are intrinsically better than MOOCs. Who learns better by watching videos of figures moving around and talking to a screen, when one can read a well-organized chapter at the speed that is best for oneselves (dyslexics excluded)? It can make for nice entertainment. PBS already offers it. Even the best educational shows cannot usually keep the attention of audiences when going into depth. They don’t command the audience’s full attention with nuances for hours on end.
Universities are not just venues that facilitate the transmission of known subject matter from professor to student. They are so much more than this. They are experiences, with professors and peers. They are ways for students to find themselves and other kindred spirits. They are about fun, life, and irresponsibility. But they are also about learning about discipline–what happens when one does not keep up–and about growing into responsible adulthood. Mature students who have great self-discipline can indeed acquire most basic subject matter themselves much before they enroll in their first university course, and they could have done so decades ago. AP courses have not replaced introductory college courses, much less college.
I don’t know about you, but even in hindsight and with all I know about academia and knowledge that I know today, going back to when I was 18, if I had had the choice to save myself the tuition and forego the college education, instead spending the time studying subject matters by myself, I would still have gone to college! I would have skipped a few basic subjects and preferred to take more advanced courses while there. But I would have still wanted to attend a top research university with some of the brightest minds, both as peers and as teachers. For the experience.