If you haven't been following trends in higher education, you're excused for not knowing that "MOOC" stands for "massive open online course." As Wikipedia can tell you, a MOOC "is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web." There are a number of different companies and universities offering MOOCs, but last January a Stanford professor, Sebastian Thrun, gave a lecture that galvanized broader public interest in them. (Go ahead and watch his talk. It's worth it.) The promise of MOOCs is simple: Just about anyone can learn from the world's experts on just about anything, just about anywhere, pretty much for free. This promise was seen by some as a potential threat to institutions that charged students a lot more than free for an education.

Thrun is back in the news because his recent comments signal a shift in his thinking about MOOCs. Thrun no longer thinks that MOOCs are for everyone. In particular, it's likely they're not for most college-age students who are working toward some kind of educational degree. MOOCs will probably, Thrun thinks, work best in the corporate world, with "students" who are employees who need on-the-job training. But it's a long way from the dream that MOOCs will change the world of higher education to the realization that MOOCs will probably be most effective at training corporate employees.

Thrun has no problem with this because "We're not doing anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you."

A traditional liberal-arts education is so rich and powerful because it depends on more-or-less direct interpersonal interaction between teachers and students. And the need for smaller classes is not arbitrary. It's based on the fact that education is not something that teachers do to students. If anything, it is something that teachers do with students. The best kind of education is akin to friendship: people getting to know each other through real life experiences, where each person is always looking out for the others' best interests.

MOOCs will never replace true education because no MOOC instructor can ever be with his or her students. Despite his realization that MOOCs cannot rival a traditional liberal-arts education for richness and power, I'm not sure that Thrun has completely realized that education must take place on a small scale. He says, for example, that "I could restrict myself to helping a class of 20 insanely smart Stanford students who would be fine without me. But how could that impact not be dwarfed by teaching 160,000 students?" But it's impossible to get to know even 160 students well enough to teach them something of significance.

Thrun's limited realization about the limited effectiveness of MOOCs reminds us that education has to take place on a human scale, in small groups or even one on one. Education cannot be scaled the way computer manufacturing can be scaled. (This, by the way, is one reason why the best forms of education are relatively more expensive than other goods.) Of course, the transfer of information can take place on a large scale, but, living in 2013, we all have plenty of experience with people who have lots of information but clearly lack knowledge to understand that simply transferring information from one person to another is only a shadow of true education.


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