Emperor's new Mooc

October 31, 2013

I find the renewed hype about online courses depressing: we’ve been here before. In his 2003 book The Flickering Mind, US journalist Todd Oppenheimer considers such courses to be less effective than conventional teaching. Distance learning demands unusual commitment and perseverance on the part of the student - rare qualities and not commonly found when courses are intended for anyone.

Students prefer face-to-face contact with teachers and this makes perfect sense, for much more is communicated tacitly or implicitly than can be directly stated or organised. Such contact also upholds the essential “community” of the learning process.

But then we have the likes of Stephen Haggard talking about massive open online courses (“The Mooc wave of hype will break on a transformed world”, Opinion, 3 October). Like most proponents of the educationally revolutionary aspects of the computer, he sees criticism of online education as applying only to earlier experiments that can be improved upon and ultimately transcended - but what can’t be overcome is the nature of the student (and the teacher).

We are offered a rather sinister projection of the “inevitability” of the Mooc movement as “the force that swept away the old higher education world” (significantly, Haggard refers in the past tense to a process that has hardly begun). It may come to pass that Moocs will sweep away academic tradition: the Haggards of this world may be relaxed about this, but God help the rest of humanity.

Nigel Probert
Porthmadog

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