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Some Problems with MOOCs August 17, 2013

Posted by Andre Vellino in Education, Ethics.
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Michael Sandel‘s acclaimed undergraduate lectures at Harvard on Justice are now offered in a MOOC at EdX and watching them for a second time gave me an insight into a few of the significant shortcomings of recorded lectures.

First, they have a limited shelf-life. However perennial the issues are (e.g. “What is Justice?”), what makes it a learning experience for the students is the process of investigation and enquiry.  While Sandel’s recordings of his lectures are a master class on how to engage students, how to foster critical thinking and make issues pertinent and alive,  their very nature as recordings ultimately limits them to being historical documents.

For instance, since 2005 – the year in which these lectures were recorded – the richest person in the world (taken as an example of [potential] financial injustice) is no longer Bill Gates (it’s Carlos Slim Helu), significant examples of greed and inequality are better illustrated with the 2007-2008 financial crisis and there have been many changes in U.S. politics since the election of President Obama.

At least as importantly, watching these lectures makes the viewer feel wanting of interactions with the lecturer. Listening to young minds grappling with the issues is pedagogically interesting, but as a student what you really want is to be in the audience asking questions, taking positions and arguing with the lecturer and fellow students.

As a taste of how a student might benefit from a Harvard education, having a course such as this on-line is wonderful. And it is clearly of value to anyone who would be unable to attend or afford such an education.  But it is no substitute for the real experience.

So, for these two reasons alone, I think that MOOCs will, at best, be a complement to a university education, not an alternative to it.