Monologues of Learning

Mohamed Gad-el-Hak

In the award-winning film Educating Rita (1983), a hairdresser decides to find herself by taking an Open University course. Her English literature tutor is an alcoholic, in a failing marriage, and aspires to be a poet. The University of Liverpool don is saddened when Rita replaces her warm impulsive reactions by the sort of pretentious analytical approach he so much despises. Yet the teacher ends up learning as much from his pupil as she learns from him. The story is an inspiring tale of self-discovery and of the power of choice that comes through education, especially through the now unfashionable one-on-one tutoring.

In the time of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is the education system ripe for a revolutionary change? One-on-one tutoring has existed since the beginning of civilization. Lecture-based instruction commenced before the invention of the printing press. Correspondence education is about a century old, and MOOC blasted off during the 2000s. There are already a number of journals devoted to online learning, teaching, and administration, for example, MOOCs Forum, Hybrid Pedagogy, and The Internet and Higher Education.

In her influential lecture delivered at Oxford in 1947, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” celebrated crime writer, essayist, and Christian humanist Dorothy L. Sayers advocated a return to the method of the medieval university, which divided the syllabus into the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music). “We have lost the tools of learning—the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane—that were so adaptable to all tasks,” Sayers lamented, for at present (mid-twentieth century) we teach our children everything but how to learn.1

This is the question at hand: Does offering academic coursework via the Internet, making it affordable and accessible to millions worldwide (albeit at a great distance) help or hinder our ongoing quest for teaching the next generation how to learn? Despite the deluge of MOOCs—even Harvard is taking the plunge, and the president of the University of Virginia nearly lost her job because she was not adapting to Internet learning fast enough2—this contrarian believes the new pedagogic paradigm is, in the long run, a setback for imparting the ability to learn and for encouraging critical thinking skills, in both the sciences and the humanities. Here is why.

Technology made MOOC, but the prohibitive cost and extreme selectivity of top universities are what fostered its flourishing. MOOC outreach is enormous; it is free and no admissions standards are applied, and in return (except in a few cases) no college credits are awarded. The few students admitted to the offering college may take the same course and earn credits, but they have to pay.

Humans are social beings and learning is a social process. Both require connection and interaction to flourish. These factors undermine the effectiveness of an online class. In our digital, mobile society, on-site discussion forums are still the most effective tools for student-student and student-teacher interactions. Even in a large lecture hall, a good teacher is able to sense student mood and receptivity, and instantly adapt to them. And in a good course, rich spontaneous interactions can take place among all involved. In a 2012 New York Times op-ed, University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson likened a memorable “non-virtual” course to a jazz composition: “There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.”3

Acquiring knowledge is not the same as knowing what to do with it. Learning to use, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, collaborate, and advance the unlimited information available is what education is all about. In my opinion, MOOC offers little beyond do-it-yourself learning using the Internet’s vast stores of information.

There are, of course, the fortunate few who have the superior discipline, motivation, and intellect necessary to learn on their own and make sense of the boundless information out there, but the majority of us do not possess these gifts. MOOC and the Internet are no different from having a library at your disposal. Both offer monologues, not dialogues. Dialogues are personal, labor-intensive, and expensive, but they nurture learning and critical thinking. Monologues are the polar opposite.

“MOOC panic,” “anti-MOOC mania,” and the “MOOC tsunami” are some recently coined phrases. Lecture-based instruction can undoubtedly be improved, but MOOC is far from a panacea for our real or perceived pedagogical shortcomings. Would anyone want a physician or an esquire who has been taught the fundamentals of medicine or law via MOOC courses? Believing that MOOCs will improve the learning process is akin to wishing that incessant texting and tweeting will produce the next Tennessee Williams.

In the stage musical The King and I, Anna the British schoolteacher recites and sings during her first encounter with her Siamese pupils, “It’s a very ancient saying, / But a true and honest thought, / That if you become a teacher, / By your pupils you’ll be taught….Getting to know you, / Getting to know all about you.” How could one even come close to this magic in an online course?

The Internet has changed our world, for the better for the most part. But when it comes to education, teachers—whether lecturing or tutoring or conducting an ordinary class—should not be replaced by machines. Dehumanizing education through mass production won’t improve the institution’s productivity. This teacher is unabashedly laudator temporis acti.

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