We have had occasion before in this space to dilate on the promise and the peril of MOOCs, the “massive open online courses” that have been hailed by proponents as the salvation and by detractors as the death-knell of higher education. The great promise of these courses is that they offer high-quality lectures and review material for free. Storied professors at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and elsewhere are available online, delivering the same classes that they have been delivering at their home universities for years. The perils revolve around the impersonality of the medium. In a recent column at his blog “Via Meadia,” Walter Russell Mead discusses setbacks at some companies that pioneered MOOCs. Completion rates, especially in the humanities, are low. But Mead is undoubtedly correct that the format of MOOCs is “better suited for some subjects than others. Math, science, and business are easier to teach online than liberal-arts subjects like English and philosophy that rely more heavily on in-class discussions.” According to Mead, only 7 percent of today’s students major in the humanities. If one believes in the importance of the humanities as the purveyor of civilization from one generation to the next, that statistic may be far more disturbing than the advent of new, technologically sophisticated means of teaching such subjects as nursing, accounting, engineering, or math. One thing, we think, is certain: The higher education establishment in its current form is on the threshold of enormous change. MOOCs are not a panacea. They will not completely replace traditional liberal arts education. But they will supplement it, and in some subjects they will compete heartily with the current, unsustainable model of what post-secondary education has become. The commentator Glenn Reynolds is fond of quoting Herbert Stein’s observation that “What cannot go on forever, won’t.” The higher education establishment in its current configuration cannot go on forever, therefore it won’t. MOOCs are part, if only part, of the answer.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 4, on page 3
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