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On the cutting room floor: first books, now classrooms

This fall has been abuzz with debates about online learning. Like many things digital, this one first appeared a long time ago (1995 anyone?). And now it’s coming back with a vengeance. Suddenly online learning is fresh, exciting, and innovative (not to mention “massive”). A host of universities have announced online learning platforms and at least at UVa it led to a major leadership crisis. Like books, it looks like the value of classrooms are on their way out. Digital media continues to disrupt.

One obvious reason for this newly discovered love of online learning is that it solves the growing access problem. The “higher” in higher education seems to refer more and more to the cost, not the quality. Having a course open to 100,000 students simultaneously seems like a miracle. So many people can learn for free. Why didn’t we think of this sooner?

The answer of course is that we already did think of this and when we did we came to the same conclusion we are going to arrive at this time around: if it can be put online, it’s not higher education. Yes, lectures and problem sets work fabulously online. You can learn many things from many bright people who are well trained. At a time when we need to raise the education level of more and more people with fewer and fewer resources, this just has to be a good thing. But it’s still not higher education, even though we’ve been calling it that for a long time.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not making a distinction here between the humanities and the sciences — that, sure, you can put science online but not the humanities (“we’re too complex” – bah!). No, I’m making a distinction between higher and lower education that cuts across all disciplines. “Higher” education, as anybody knows who has ever taught a class, only happens in a classroom with a very small number of similarly educated people guided by an extremely knowledgable person about a particular subject. Higher education is about dialogue, inquiry, questions, queries, debate, doubt, trust, and belief. Lectures are just really lame TV shows.

So MOOCs aren’t going to solve the access problem once and for all (and given their attrition rates they may make it worse). Instead, they’re going to make it very clear who has access to higher education and who doesn’t. All those out-sourced lectures might be good at helping subsidize the real education that takes place in the classroom, but they won’t replace them.

I for one am very glad this one came back: it’s putting university teaching in the spotlight and it’s about time.

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