Musings on MOOCs, and writing with a stick on the ground

by reestheskin on 18/05/2014

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Gregory Hays shares some nuanced thoughts on MOOCs, on reviewing a book and MOOC by Gregory Nagy.

Will the MOOC revolutionize education in a few short years, as the Virginia conspirators persuaded themselves? Will it remain a marginal though useful supplement to conventional college, like the Open University or the correspondence courses of the 1920s? Will it be merely a playground for retirees and intellectual hobbyists, the digital successor to “great lectures on tape”? Or will it prove an evolutionary cul-de-sac, like the fifth-grade filmstrip of the 1970s?

None of these questions really seems answerable as yet. In its current version, in fact, Nagy’s MOOC feels a lot like a conventional large lecture class: there’s a textbook, a professor who does most of the talking (sometimes alone, sometimes in obviously staged “dialogues”), a virtual discussion section, and tests in multiple choice and short-answer formats. As one browses the website one is struck by the ordinariness of the whole thing—even the classroom dynamics. Some participants are being lectured about courtesy on the bulletin boards, modern Greek students are insisting that only they can really understand Homer, and still others are—well, perhaps “disconnected” is the right word.3

None of this should surprise. It’s typical for new technologies initially to mimic an existing one; Gutenberg’s forty-two-line Bible is not easy to distinguish from a manuscript copy. It takes time to figure out what a new medium can do besides the same thing bigger, faster, or cheaper, and for its particular strengths and weaknesses to emerge. Fifty years after Gutenberg, printing had shown itself vastly superior for Bibles and legal texts, a cheap substitute for deluxe books of hours, and no replacement at all for wills, inventories, and personal letters.

His final sentence:

It is, after all, a medium, not a message. And as the typographer Alvin Doyle Moore observed, “if you’re really good, you can do it anywhere—even on the ground with a stick.”

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