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.

Thoughts on “What would Jefferson think of a MOOC?

    While I do see the obvious benefits MOOC lecture series would reap, I also mourn the traditional classroom, which fosters the relationship between the student and Professor.


    Please send me more inforamtion on this course or any other on-line couse on TJ.


    Age of Jefferson
    with Professor Peter S. Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor, Emeritus Corcoran Department of History
    Starts February 17

    This is a six week course providing an overview of Thomas Jefferson’s work and perspectives presented by the University of Virginia in partnership with Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Together, UVA and Monticello are recognized internationally as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    About the Course

    Born in an age ruled by monarchs, Thomas Jefferson thought that power ought to belong to those who possessed “virtue and talent” rather than to aristocrats who had inherited it. He rejected the power of kings in favor of ordinary people, believing that all men are created equal and possess inherent natural rights. Jefferson became a powerful spokesman for a revolutionary generation of Americans who created a new nation based on these radical ideas. Thomas Jefferson remains today a pivotal figure in American history whose influence continues to be felt nearly two centuries after his death, both in the United States and around the world. This course will offer an introduction to Jefferson’s thought, focusing on several key ideas and themes that engaged Jefferson throughout his public career and private life. We will address the three achievements that Jefferson asked to be listed on his tombstone by discussing his roles in writing the Declaration of Independence, in advocating religious freedom, and in advancing the cause of education by founding the University of Virginia. We will also seek to understand what Jefferson meant when he proclaimed that “the earth belongs to the living.” And, crucially, we will explore Jefferson’s lifelong relationship with the institution of slavery.

    To understand Jefferson’s ideas and why they continue to be relevant today, our approach in each lecture will be to situate Jefferson in the context of his own time and place. Jefferson lived for many years in different places—Philadelphia, New York, Paris, and Washington D.C., to name but a few—but there is little doubt that he considered his home, Monticello, and the nearby town of Charlottesville, in central Virginia, to be the center of his world. In this course, produced by the University of Virginia in close partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, we will explore how Jefferson’s identification with Monticello and the surrounding area influenced him as he formulated ideas that have made a global impact. After completing the course it should be clear not only why Jefferson’s legacy is essential to understanding American history, but also why UNESCO has designated Jefferson’s Monticello and the University of Virginia as a World Heritage Site.

    6 weeks
    1-3 hours of work / week

    Visit to learn more about the instructor, Peter Onuf.



    I don’t think it is a silly question at all. I think it is one of the more pertinent questions. When we do comparisons, I think the more precise meaning to your question is “If Jefferson had been born in our lifetime, what would he think of a MOOC?”.

    Jefferson would have loved education to reach all or as close to it as possible. Jefferson did not like the idea of diplomas — one learnt what one wanted to learn for the love of learning period.

    So given these first principles, what would Jefferson think of MOOCs?

    Perhaps understanding the state of the union on MOOCs in education in order. Here’s one:-

    “The MOOC revolution is as yet failing to empower those who need free education the most. Change must be realized only through real innovation: the readiness to do familiar things in a radically new way. We need to acknowledge new ways of accrediting skills, removing teachers from fact-based learning where at all possible with a self-paced, flexible delivery focus on learner outcomes. We need to be aware of the status quo in education that will try to keep things as they are and we must take the opportunity to add ever more sophisticated learner and career enhancing services online for free. Finally, Feerick suggests the Freemium business model of ALISON should be looked at as a way of propelling free learning and related services worldwide. The ALISON free learning and certification model is simple but powerful Feerick says, and the genius of simplicity should not be overlooked.

    Above all, Feerick outlines how free education can become universal, dynamic and empowering, if we allow new educational opportunities and methodologies to flourish.”


    Would Mr Jefferson be up for it? Up for a revolution in education in the world? Most certainly so.

    Bala Pillai
    Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


    Well said! I’m reminded of a certain Thomas Jefferson quote, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”


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