Lifetime Learning

What would Jefferson think of a MOOC?

By John Ragosta

moocsI know that it is a silly question in many ways: Imagine first explaining to Tom computers, video, the internet, and then modern education. You can see where this goes.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Classes), though, have become one of the hottest topics in higher education as lawmakers and administrators look to deliver learning more cheaply, as leading “brands” (top universities) seek to increase their “market share,” as students seek to navigate a confusing landscape of educational opportunities and costs, and as teachers ask hard questions about how one is really educated and the value of that education.  Setting aside the plethora of questions before MOOCs could be offered for college credit – ensuring students view videos, do the reading, participate in discussions, pass exams – there is no doubt that the role of MOOCs in education will continue to develop.

What precipitated the question was the announcement by UVA and Monticello that they are co-sponsoring a MOOC entitled “Age of Jefferson” taught by Peter Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History emeritus at UVA and one of the country’s leading experts on Jefferson. (I had the chance to observe the filming of a very interesting session on the Declaration of Independence for that course.)

From an educational perspective, MOOCs offer intriguing possibilities. Lectures by world experts can be delivered anywhere, at anytime, and at a very low cost. One can study archaeology from academics working at some of the most exciting digs around the world, or listen to lectures on philosophy by great thinkers thousands of miles away. Properly structured, the MOOCs might even offer some opportunity for interaction with other students and a professor (through message boards, blogging, etc.).

I, though, join those who urge at least some caution. The underlying question is how to best deliver education and what is valuable in education. The movement to MOOCs is often part of a broader effort to make education work on a business model. It is certainly true that colleges and universities need to be acutely aware of costs and efficiency (I can speak as the father of college students), and students need to have realistic information and expectations about job prospects. At the same time, basing most decisions about academia on a measurable or immediate cost/benefit analysis is fundamentally perverse. What we learn in higher-education, in the liberal arts as well as the sciences and professional schools, often, perhaps usually, has a value to the student and to society that goes well beyond anything quantifiable. (I was there to watch as the same “business model” approach undermined some of the country’s premier law firms and impaired the professionalism at the heart of the practice of law.) More to the point, my experience has been that students learn best when a teacher can stand in front of them, see perplexed expressions or dawning understanding, react immediately to inquiries, encourage effectively discussion with and among students, meet outside of class to address questions or problems, engage in a community of learning that goes beyond a lecture.

These are things that we look forward to doing this June at the Summer Jefferson Symposium, Thomas Jefferson: Friends, Family, and Foes. There will be suggested readings and serious lectures, but there will also be time to discuss the ideas presented by the experts, both during and after lectures, and to gain insights from other attendees. While not the same as a semester-long college class, I think we’ll all enjoy the experience and learn something about Jefferson and the early republic.

Of course, one can hardly naysay the opportunity for more people to listen to fascinating lectures on Jefferson by a leading scholar. And if you have been thinking about a MOOC or similar lecture series, starting with Peter’s lectures on Jefferson would be an excellent place to start.  I’m sure that Tom would approve.

I hope, though, that we will see you in person in Charlottesville on June 19 for the beginning of the Summer Jefferson Symposium. I will look forward to welcoming you to the Grounds.

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