A Christian Case Against MOOCs

There’s been plenty of criticism of massive open online courses (MOOCs) in recent months, a small fraction of it linked in my Saturday wrap-up posts. But I haven’t seen much that consciously takes on the problems of MOOCs from a faith-based perspective.

Jon Malesic
Jon Malesic – King’s College (PA)

So Jonathan Malesic’s piece a couple of weeks ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “A Catholic Case Against MOOCs,” stood out. Noting that Georgetown University is the only one of the country’s 250-some Catholic colleges and universities to have entered into a partnership with MOOC providers Coursera, edX, or Udacity, Malesic professed himself unsure why such connections hadn’t been forged, but concluded:

…I do know that by banding together in a principled stand against producing MOOCs or offering students credit for completing them, Catholic universities can be true leaders in higher education. Instead of following the hype, they can reassert the belief that education is a moral enterprise that develops human dignity and promotes social justice.

MOOCs not only fail to accomplish those goals; they undermine them. And if large Catholic universities pursued strategic aims through MOOCs, they could end up pushing smaller Catholic colleges, including ones sponsored by the same religious orders, out of business, weakening Catholic higher education as a whole.

Read the full essay for his argument, but two points seemed especially important. First, while MOOCs do seem to align with the historic Catholic goal of offering “access to college-level instruction for people who have been excluded because of poverty, remoteness, or others’ prejudice,” he saw little evidence that these platforms were actually serving such a population. (He also raised another concern for social justice Catholics — and, I think, all Christians — to consider: MOOCs “replacing human labor (here, faculty) with cheaper, less effective machine labor,” and thereby running the risk of “[depersonalizing] both the work and the worker, who is, the pope argued [John Paul II, in Laborem Exercens], ‘the primary basis of the value of work.'”) At some level, he thought MOOCs would be incapable of serving this educational mission: “Catholic organizations have known for a long time that to educate the poor, you have to go to them.”

That led neatly into the crux of his argument, that “to educate anyone fully—addressing their moral and spiritual development as well as their intellect—teachers and students must be present to each other.” While MOOC advocates point out how their courses allow for personalization of learning options, do they treat students as whole persons?

MOOC creators assume that learners’ intellects are detachable from their broader life circumstances. You take the MOOC, but you’re on your own in figuring out how your learning fits into the rest of your life—or how it might require changing your life. That’s fine if you just need to know about analog circuits to work on a specific project. But people come to universities at all ages, with unsettled identities and life plans, or with plans that education itself will unsettle. Moral education, which Catholic institutions promise (and secular ones, too, should offer), relies on dialogue and physical proximity. Students therefore need accessible mentors on the faculty as well as counselors, advisers, and chaplains.

Logo for edXMalesic presents this as a Catholic case against MOOCs; I’d like to think that it is one that can be shared by Christians more broadly. Not just Catholic colleges and universities, but most Protestant schools have not (yet) cooperated with companies like edX, Coursera, and Udacity. In part that’s because those companies have focused on building partnerships with major research universities, precious of few of which have any significant relationship with a church, let alone a meaningful Christian identity. (Duke and Emory are among Coursera’s partners, and both maintain some tie to the United Methodist Church.)

Davidson College, a historically Presbyterian liberal arts college in North Carolina, joined the edX consortium earlier this year, but leading evangelical, Baptist, Reformed, Lutheran, and other Protestant colleges have thus far steered clear of MOOCs (or not been asked).

I don’t have a solid thesis to suggest here, but I do wonder if evangelical Protestant schools will be somewhat more susceptible to the lures of MOOCs than Catholic institutions:

1. One comment at the Chronicle argued, against Malesic, that “A MOOC is one more useful instrument to spread the treasures of God. It’s the message, not the medium.” I wonder if evangelical educational leaders won’t be prone to find such an evangelistic argument persuasive, seeing MOOCs as a way to expand their reach into missions fields.

2. In another context, I once presented an argument from a fellow evangelical that our branch of Protestantism does not share with Catholicism a robust sense of the Imago Dei — that we generally fail to value the human person in its fullness and innate dignity. I’m still unconvinced of that, but I do wonder — when push comes to shove — whether tuition-dependent, low-endowment evangelical colleges will value the “education of the whole person,” even if that model of education requires low student-faculty ratios, extensive general education requirements, and expensive student/residential life programs. Much as evangelical college presidents and trustees claim to value well-rounded, liberal education, in leaner economic times they might respond to two other impulses woven into evangelical DNA: a concern for practical effectiveness (in the 19th and early 20th centuries, training pastors and missionaries and/or helping immigrants and their children rise up economically and socially) and an openness to, or even admiration for, the values and practices of a free-market economy.

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