Friday, February 1, 2013

Reasons to Hate MOOCs #1: The "Best Professors" Myth

I don't really hate MOOCs* - I think some of them are really interesting innovations. (Others are just old wine in new bottles.) It's more the popular idea of what a MOOC is and why it matters that brings out the curmudgeon in me.

Here's a quote from the irrepressible and supremely credulous Thomas Friedman in his article Revolution Hits the Universities:
I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world...
I could write a whole blog just on what Thomas Friedman gets wrong, but let's take a look at this statement. Like so many others, Friedman focuses on the idea of "the best professors" as if it's self-evident that the best learning comes from "the best professors". After all, who wants second-best?

When I was becoming a computer scientist, I became enamored of the books of Don Knuth, a professor at Stanford -  much later Ground Zero in the Great MOOC Explosion of 2011. Knuth was the model of a scholar and scientist who was also a great writer and explainer. Somehow I know this about him even though there were no MOOCs back then, just books.

But I never would have appreciated Knuth if not for my professor Marvin Paull at Rutgers. He helped me develop the intellectual capacity and motivation to appreciate what Knuth had done and the taste to understand why it mattered. He inculcated in me the curiosity to spend hours trying to perform a mind-meld with Knuth's elegant but not-always-easily-absorbed ideas. I may never open Knuth vol. 3 again but it's hard to imagine I'll ever get rid of the copy on my shelf. For me, Knuth - surely a "best professor" - had a huge impact on me and my intellectual development, but so did Marv Paull - for me, he was a "best professor" too.

The idea that "best university" = "best professor" = "best learning" is simplistic, pernicious, and wrong. And that's one reason why it's wrong to equate the MOOC with higher education.

*If you're not familiar with MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) - or you've heard the hype but you're not really sure what they are - I recommend ELI's 7 Things You Should Know About MOOCs for a primer.


  1. I agree with your sentiments, Michael. For me, what is special about higher education is the mentoring relationship between students and faculty. That is where the magic happens on our campuses - whether the faculty are Nobel laureates or not. Until we figure out how to replicate that with technology, anything we do falls more into the McDonaldization of Education in my book.

  2. As an advisor to a fairly large campus student organization, I see the qualities and abilities participation nurtures in undergraduate students. While access to certain of the MOOCs may enhance a student’s intellectual journey in a certain discipline, I have a hard time with a completely online education equaling a “best university.” The leadership, time management, and interpersonal skills developed through involvement in out-of-class campus organizations and events are not obtained by strictly sitting in front of a computer/mobile device doing classwork and research or participating in online class-related chats.