Critical Thinking and MOOCs – A Marriage Made in Hell

To paraphrase a well-worn phrase from the Clinton administration about the economy, It’s the students, stupid! I read an article in the Sunday New York Times Business section (6/1/14) titled “Business School, Disrupted“. It’s about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that all the big-name universities are tripping over themselves to get up and running. MOOCs (and online courses in general) are supposedly the answer to all our education woes: they reach large audiences (hence the name), anyone can sign up anywhere in the world (often for free), participants can do them at their own speed, the university saves money because they’re fairly cheap to produce, students don’t have to come to schlep to campus, they aggrandize the name of the university, and so forth.

But did they even discuss how well students learn from MOOCs? Of course not—it was a business article. All they cared about was how much prestige Harvard was going to gain from such a venture or lose if they don’t jump on the bandwagon. And I suppose if I lived in Timbuktu or Vladivostok, I’d appreciate the opportunity to learn what I could from a Harvard professor and in my time zone. But I just think it takes a tin ear to ignore the fact that online courses in general, not just MOOCs, are a really poor delivery system of education and especially critical thinking.

Here’s why. Critical thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it sure doesn’t happen with some lone soul pecking away on a keyboard or reading or listening to lectures and then answering a few questions afterward. Retention rate? Not great. Isolation factor? Huge. Deep understanding of the material? Measurable in inches, never yards. Do you think the Socratic Method would have ever caught on if you had had to go to a chat room, put in your two cents, and wait for a reply the next day or two or three? The only skeptic in the article was the dean of the Business School—the real hero of the story— who said MOOCs were “not for us because for a hundred years our education has been social.” Yes!

Critical thinking thrives on interaction to calibrate the validity of our thinking: what do others think? What arguments have I forgotten or do I need to develop? And what about capitalizing on a teachable moment—that fleeting, organically timed window to seize students’ thinking/attention to maximize the impact on their learning. You think that’s going to happen in a MOOC? I don’t think so. Do you think Harvard cares? Not according to this article. Do you think educational matters should be discussed in the business section? Me neither. Because I see students as minds to be molded, not as dollar bills to be plucked out of a wallet. Wake up Harvard, and all you money grubbing universities so concerned with your image and professorial popularity. You’re delivering an inferior product flying erroneously under the banner of education. Your win is the students’ loss. Now write a 25-page paper about how people learn best. Give examples.

Published by Nancy Burkhalter

I am in love with words. Trained as a linguist, journalist and researcher, I write, teach writing, and research everything about writing, especially how writing aids critical thinking. I've taught around the world, including three years in Kazakhstan, and a year each in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Germany.

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