Liberal Education

From the Editor

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, have very quickly become the darling of prominent columnists eager to seize upon and promote the next big thing, of legislators and other policy leaders eager to square the circle by expanding access to education while reducing costs, and of trustees and administrators eager to position their institutions along the cutting edge. Meanwhile, a well-founded skepticism prevails among those closer to the ground—that is, among those more directly involved in the education of students; those involved in the development of new quality frameworks, such as LEAP and the Degree Qualifications Profile; and those involved in efforts to advance educational equity.

As with any application of the “digital revolution” to higher education, it is important to ask pointed questions about the contribution to student learning. Do MOOCs help students achieve the empowering educational outcomes they’ll need to succeed in today’s world, or do they simply represent a faster and cheaper repackaging of bad pedagogy?

In this issue’s lead article, Aaron Bady urges us all to step back and take a hard look at the case for MOOCs as it is being made by some of the most prominent MOOC boosters in order to see whether these courses really live up to all the hype. Bady effectively punctures the aura of “innovation” surrounding MOOCs, concluding that “there is almost nothing new about the kind of online education that the word MOOC now describes” and, indeed, that the story of the MOOC “is not that distinct from the longer story of online education.”

The second article takes an equally skeptical look at the suggestion that MOOCs are the answer to the problem of access. Scott Newstok introduces the term “close learning” as an aid to understanding the difference between liberal education and the broadcast lectures and online discussions to which MOOCs promise to give disadvantaged students access. As Newstok uses the term, “close learning” refers to the “personal, human element to liberal education,” to the “millennia-tested practice” of “personalized instruction.” In other words, “close learning” refers to what is sacrificed to the scale, speed, and expediency of the MOOC.

Finally, in the third featured article, Leland Carver and Laura Harrison urge us to consider whether the supposed “transformation” of education being ushered in by MOOCs really comports with the core purposes of education in a democratic society. Although “MOOCs have the potential to democratize higher education,” it is by no means certain that this potential will ever be realized. In fact, as Carver and Harrison warn, a number of developments may already be conspiring against that much hoped-for outcome of the “MOOCs revolution.”

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