The prehistory of the MOOC

In writing my piece on MOOCs for Technology Review, I had the opportunity to do a little digging into the history of distance learning, or, as it was once known, university extension. It’s an illuminating tale, not least for the way it highlights the hopes we invest in new media technologies. Pretty much every new communication system seems to have inspired visions of revolutions in education:

Mail: Around 1885, Yale professor William Rainey Harper, a pioneer of teaching-by-post, said, “The student who has prepared a certain number of lessons in the correspondence school knows more of the subject treated in those lessons, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom.” Soon, he predicted, “the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our academies and colleges.”

Phonograph: In an 1878 article on “practical uses of the phonograph,” the New York Times predicted that the phonograph would be used “in the school-room in training children to read properly without the personal attention of the teacher; in teaching them to spell correctly, and in conveying any lesson to be acquired by study and memory. In short, a school may almost be conducted by machinery.”

Movies: “It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture,” proclaimed Thomas Edison in 1913. “Our school system will be completely changed in 10 years.”

Radio: In 1927, the University of Iowa declared that “it is no imaginary dream to picture the school of tomorrow as an entirely different institution from that of today, because of the use of radio in teaching.”

TV: “During the 1950s and 1960s,” report education scholars Marvin Van Kekerix and James Andrews, “broadcast television was widely heralded as the technology that would revolutionize education.” In 1963, an official with the National University Extension Association wrote that television provided an “open door” to transfer “vigorous and vital learning” from campuses to homes.

Computers: “There won’t be schools in the future,” wrote MIT’s Seymour Papert in 1984. “I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured into groups by age, following a curriculum — all of that.”

Web 1.0: Internet-based education has itself gone through one boom-to-bust cycle already, with the e-learning fad of the late 1990s. In 1999, Cisco CEO John Chambers told the Times‘s Thomas Friedman, “The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big, it’s going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error.”

Home study programs, whether delivered through mailboxes or TVs, CD-ROMs or websites, have long played a very important role in expanding access to education and training. They’ve provided millions of people with valuable skills and perspectives that would otherwise have remained out of reach. But, despite more than a century of hope and hype, the technologies of distance learning have had surprisingly little effect on traditional schooling. Colleges, in particular, still look and work pretty much as they always have. Maybe that’s because the right technology hasn’t come along yet. Or maybe it’s because traditional classroom schooling, for all its flaws and inefficiencies, has strengths that we either don’t grasp or are quick to overlook. If it’s the former, then investing money and hopes in new technologies to revolutionize education makes sense. If it’s the latter, it would probably be wiser to identify and wrestle with the particular, and complicated, problems that beset traditional education rather than seeking magic bullets.

For those interested in the history of distance education, here are a couple of useful sources:

The Foundations of American Distance Education: A Century of Collegiate Correspondence Study, a 1991 compendium of articles edited by Barbara L. Watkins and Steven J. Wright.

Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education, by the late David F. Noble, published in 2003. Noble has an extensive chapter on the history of correspondence study, which builds on this 1999 essay.

4 thoughts on “The prehistory of the MOOC

  1. Seth Finkelstein

    Exactly – ” If it’s the latter, it would probably be wiser to identify and wrestle with the particular, and complicated, problems that beset traditional education rather than seeking magic bullets.” . I think there’s much which could be written about the iteration of the distance-learning hype today, as hucksters peddling delusions to avoid dealing with those complicated problems in favor of Internet fairy-dust.

    I mean, if you write about raising taxes to hire more and better (often unionized) teachers to improve education, there’s no way you’ll get invited to give a TED talk. If you say the Internet prophesies not paying for education, busting teacher’s unions, with a tidy profit to data-mining starts-ups and Google, that’s (almost literally) pundit gold.

  2. Artemas Gruzdef

    New technologies do revolutionalize transfer of knowledge. After seeing Prometheus I wondered about Proto-Indo-European language, so I went to Amazon and in a few minutes I was reading a book about it on my Kindle. This is magical. But schools and colleges have very little to do with transfer of knowledge. Schools are about locking up children in a prison-like environment and making them busy with useless tasks, and colleges, as far as I can tell, are about getting drunk and laid.

  3. Bob Corrick

    “Traditional classroom schooling, for all its flaws and inefficiencies, has strengths” such as:
    * face to face, immediate, feedback regarding the situation and the content
    * attention to attitude as well as content, instilling patience and self-discipline
    * daily immersion in a dynamic organization with a clear purpose – the yearly turnover of people learning, and the slower turnover of people teaching and in support
    * membership of such an organization: an experience for life

    approximately in order from more to less contrast with “distance learning”.

    Based on time with school, university, Open University (UK), books, web (Codecademy), and school again as a governor.

  4. Daniel Cole

    Part of the controversy that emanates from the subject of schooling seems to be due to our constant desire for absolute verdicts; are schools bad or good? The more oversimplified and easily digestible, the more broadly the media can pitch the story to people who can’t really give a damn for more than 3 minutes. In order to reform general U.S. public education in any substantial way would require many accommodating political, economic and social reforms. Only at it’s most abstract can education even be thought of as some kind of self contained system that we can tinker with without impacting the rest of our lives.

    In the end, it probably won’t be required that MOOCs or their next generational equivalent actually educate better, only that they become easy, affordable and popularly accepted.

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