MOOCs and the distance-learning mirage


“I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.” –Sebastian Thrun, 2012

Now that we’ve begun to talk of MOOCs retrospectively, the time has come to update my previously published survey of the history of hype and wishful thinking that has for more than a century surrounded distance-learning technologies. I am adding a new entry to the list. I suspect it won’t be the last addition.

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: The arrival of the web brought the e-learning fad of the late 1990s, as universities and corporations rushed to invest in online courses. 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.”

MOOCs: The New York Times declared 2012 the “the year of the MOOC.” “Welcome to the college education revolution,” wrote the ever-hopeful Friedman in a column heralding massive open online courses. “In five years this will be a huge industry.” The MOOC “is transforming higher education,” declared the Economist, “threatening doom for the laggard and mediocre.” Academics were equally bedazzled. “There’s a tsunami coming,” said Stanford president John Hennessy. Opined MIT president Rafael Reif: “I am convinced that digital learning is the most important innovation in education since the printing press.” Harvard’s Clayton Christensen predicted “wholesale bankruptcies” among traditional universities.

All of these mediums and devices have come to play valuable roles in education and training — which is something worth celebrating — but none of them turned out to be revolutionary or transformative. There may be a deeper lesson here, a lesson about how easy it is to overlook the intangible virtues not just of classrooms but of presence.

Image: detail of John Tenniel illustration for 1865 edition of Alice in Wonderland.

14 thoughts on “MOOCs and the distance-learning mirage

  1. Fazal Majid

    The failure of technology to have made much of a change in education may say more about the hidebound world of education, with its stifling teachers’ unions (in primary and secondary education) or its antiquated lecture format (in higher education), essentially unchanged since the 13th century, despite being proven to be grossly inefficient at transmitting knowledge compared to other methods like project-based learning.

    Both sectors are organized around the needs of the teachers or institution, not the needs of the students and the society.

  2. Daniel C.

    Part of the reason that large sectors of “traditional” education have begun to seem peculiar is because the knowledge and experience they impart are, unlike money, difficult for individuals to give a full account of. There was a previous post, on privacy I think, where Nick said something to effect that privacy advocates are constantly being forced to defend an abstract loss against concrete benefits. The same principle applies here to immediate presence, I think.

    It seems banal, really, but since things like a dysfunctional democracy, xenophobia, lack of emotional intelligence and aversion to physical exercise don’t show up easily on spreadsheets next to their causes, we should probably keep repeating it.

  3. Ivelin Sardamov

    This is really refreshing – a nice retort to the usual putdown that since all previous anxieties about new technologies have been ridiculous, current ones must be overblown, too…

  4. Brian

    The best of what we call the modern life arose from average people with access to long-form written works that exposed the contours and possibilities of truly human life. Free will was all talk before then.

    Thank you Gutenberg, Erasmus and Luther!

    Take those books out the hands – and I mean literal hands – of children and you are sending them down a path that has NOT been clearly marked and we already know is dangerous. All because of some vague threat that “if Johnny can’t do online he won’t get a job later!”

    Prepare youth for a full life and gainful employment:
    1) Provide access to a library of the best books
    2) Read with them, then count with them, then reason with them
    3) Guide their process of formally and informally gaining and demonstrating expertise as an intellectual and artisan – start with writing and gardening.

    Tech-savviness is a red herring. One cannot possibly become expert on or even truly conversant with even sub-components of what makes up our “digital world”. One CAN learn how to use an internet browser, email and calendar program, word processor, spreasheet and even build a database within weeks at most – and that can be learned even at advanced age.

    For those of us who hoped social was disco we are still waiting for our Comiskey Park:

  5. Linux Guru

    Weren’t there Corresponance Courses by mail back in the day? Of course, putting teachers in the classroom was a clever innovation

  6. Darklamp

    I agree that this article is refreshing to see how technology has always inspired people to come up with the next killer app for education. However, I can see how the app fails, mostly because you are conflicting with our evolutionary method of education.

    At this stage in our world’s geological clock, passing on knowledge has always been an experiential and mentored method. Animals learn from example of their parent(s). That is why the teacher in the classroom is essentially modelling this behaviour, learning from an elder. Storytelling and gathering around the fire to converse is how we learn.

    We need more teachers and we need them to be our celebrities. Otherwise, we will just model the “idiocracy” of our current culture.

    Where are the human libraries of knowledge, experience, and passion? In the classroom.

  7. Linux Guru

    So what exactly is the competitive advantage of having an education? Two hundred years ago it was relatively rare – only the rich and powerful could afford it. That made you a “rare” worker. But post WW2 – junior colleges, state universities and trade schools popped up everywhere making education just another widget industry. If all students graduated and worked in their trained fields for 30+ years after a few years there would be no need for more student graduates and the demand would cease. That’s called planned obsolescence. Outside of government, how many white collar workers work longer than 7-8 years before they become unemployable? Air condition repair is more profitable.

  8. Laraine

    Technology hasn’t failed so much as showed its limitations, and the field its supposed to disrupt and innovate into non-existence–traditional F2F education with teachers interacting with students to find out how best to approach and encourage them–has some serious flaws (like lecture hall classes rather than lectures, which, with the right lecturer, can actually be both informative and compelling). But it also has some advantages that many of us, especially those who benefited from them, are not so ready to abandon, like, for instance, “presence.”

  9. Crocodile Chuck

    I missed a year of primary school because of illness. Got better grades [straight ‘A’s] & applied myself more than when I attended classes with my peers.

    ‘Distance Education’ when I was in 4th Grade.

  10. Linux Guru

    How do you define education: standing up in front of people and talking about something? Or, is it that rare skill based on knowledge of a subject and the ability to communicate – that allows one mind to “turn on the light” inside another mind therefore transferring not just knowledge but understanding and the ability to apply it successfully. This human to human communication or synchronization of minds seems to lie outside technology relying on language and culture context rather than external props.

  11. Nick

    Learning will always have various mediums, but StackUp is working hard to be the layer capturing all the learning on the internet – Whether it be at MOOCS or reading an article on Business Insider. The internet is the biggest library in existence and we are certifying it.

  12. Alice Finkel

    We are still in the very early stages of e-learning. The revolution begins to take place as soon designers stop trying to imitate bricks and mortar paleo-learning, and devise experiential “learning simulators” tailored to young minds, and taking advantage of what telecomputing is capable of doing with very high speed telecommunications.

    Children should not be herded into mass-classrooms like cattle and force fed materials more suitable for indoctrination than education. Each child is unique, and each curriculum should be unique for each child. We are getting close to being able to do that.

    Read “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson for a hint at what future childhood toys will be doing for kids.

  13. Peter Shea

    This is a useful reminder of the hype that seems inevitable when elite institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, MIT etc “invent” a new and revolutionary technology. Online learning however has been around for quite a while and the true revolution has already come to pass. Recent national surveys indicate that more than one third of all US college students (some 7 million) are enrolled in a credit bearing online course each year- mostly offered by public colleges, mostly community colleges. This unheralded development has occurred over as period of decades and quietly transformed how working adults acquire new and valuable credentials. MOOCs, on the other hand, seem to have been more sizzle than steak…

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