There’s a legendary story about Anne Sexton’s learning how to write a sonnet by watching I.A. Richard’s educational-television series in the late fifties. I’ve thought about that fairly often while reading the daily stories on MOOCs. In the Sexton/Richards instance, there was a fortuitous electronic meeting of an excellent teacher who saw possibilities in the then “new” technology of television and a motivated student who was ready to write as if -- and according to her this was indeed the case -- her life depended on it.
That hyperbolic tone of the last sentence above -- a tone that readers of Sexton’s later poems and interviews are already familiar with -- is also the tone of a good many declarations about MOOCs.
Thomas Friedman’s latest column “The Professors’ Big Stage”  is a case in point. His piece on “the MOOCs revolution” is riddled with contradictions, shallow thinking -- and an error in basic arithmetic.
Friedman begins by excitedly informing us that he’s just returned from a “great conference” sponsored by M.I.T. and Harvard on “Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education.” He doesn’t explain why he had to attend in person, or question why the conference wasn’t online, but he adds his own title, “How can colleges charge $50,000 a year if my kid can learn it all free from massive open online courses?" That premise, it soon becomes clear, is moot.
More on Friedman and MOOCs
"Thomas Friedman has as much
credibility on education as I do on
dunking a basketball," writes
John Warner. 
As Friedman goes on to extol the virtues of using MOOCs as supplements for traditional courses and programs, MOOCs then become an example of preliminary programmed learning -- the sort of thing that community colleges have been doing in terms of remedial aid for quite a while. Publishers like Bedford/St. Martin’s have offered online drills for years. And if the MOOC is tied to an accredited college’s course, then Junior and his dad are still paying for Junior’s education.
According to Friedman, students enrolled in a hybrid course at San Jose State, which combines M.I.T.’s introductory online Circuits and Electronics course with traditional in-seat class time, have done quite well: “Preliminary numbers indicate that those passing the class went from nearly 60 percent to about 90 percent.” There’s even better news for the students involved in that course than Friedman’s assessment: he sees the improvement as one-third; in fact, a jump from 60 percent to 90 percent means the number of students passing the class increased by one-half, or 50 percent.
We should note that this is an argument for remedial preparation and/or immersion in a subject -- not necessarily an argument for online versus in-seat instruction.
And that, of course, is just one class. Friedman sees MOOCs as going far “beyond the current system of information and delivery -- the professorial ‘sage on the stage’ and students taking notes, followed by a superficial assessment. This description not only fails to describe adequately the current system but also ironically illuminates some of the biggest problems with MOOCs. Given the scale of MOOC courses, the only kinds of student assessment that can be accomplished are superficial. And we will have to hope that some enrolled students, unlike Friedman, still believe in note taking. The MOOC lecture system, however, puts that sage right back on the stage -- as Friedman’s very title for his op-ed indicates.
Moreover, his discussion of Michael Sandel, the Harvard professor whose Justice course will have its American debut on March 12 as the first humanities offering on the M.I.T./Harvard edX online learning platform, focuses not on aspects of the course but on Sandel’s old-fashioned appearances on the lecture circuit.
Sandel, whose course has been translated into Korean and shown on national South Korean television, recently traveled to Seoul (again, why?), where he lectured “in an outdoor amphitheater to 14,000 people, with audience participation.” There was no indication as to how long the Q&A session ran.
Academicians often fall prey to magical thinking; at my former college, each time we hired a new provost (10 in my 16 years), we were certain that this was the one who would be our savior.
Each time we created a new central curriculum (three in my 16 years; the final stage just before I left was to exempt adult students from completion of the college’s core requirements), we were certain that this was the answer. Smaller, struggling colleges may see offering licensed supersized online courses as cost-saving -- an escape from the situation they currently find themselves in, in which every small school worries about going online or bust.
Many of these colleges turned to creating their own individual online courses -- already being referred to as “traditional online courses” -- as a solution, only to find that the expenses have outweighed the successes: they are costly in terms of faculty training, serve very small audiences (often sitting only a building or two away), and put severe strain on IT departments.
Online consortiums in which struggling schools have banded together have also proved to be problematic; I am thinking in particular of one class that I was asked to review for my former college, which was a member of such a consortium: an accelerated multi-genre writing class, which asked students to write one poem, one short story, and one essay over a period of five weeks. The "final project" consisted of one additional work, in the students' choice of genre. It was thus possible to fufill 50 percent of the course requirements with two haiku.
MOOCs, of course, have their ur-versions, which include not only Henry Ford’s production line and the rise of fast food, but massive online delivery experiments in the mid-1990s, online remedial drills, large introductory-course in-seat lectures, Sunrise Semester, and the Great Lecture Series, but also the 19th-century lecture. And possibly there was someone who asked Harvard for credit for attending Thoreau’s lecture on “Society” -- or for attending a lecture by P. T. Barnum.
Friedman does note, near the end of his exhortatory column, that “We still need more research on what works.”
Indeed. Along with the return of the sage on the stage, this newest educational/industrialized development has brought along with it -- no surprise to anyone who has taught a traditional online class, a class with online components, or a traditional in-seat class -- some old concerns: problems with technology; problems with underprepared and unmotivated students; problems with class participation in discussions (one sage walked off the stage); and concerns about retention and plagiarism.
Assessment will continue to be one of the biggest concerns: both assessment of the overall course and assessment of any student work that goes beyond the level of a drill. Financial issues will come in to play, as will work force issues. Hierarchical divides among students, faculty members, and institutions will not disappear.
Finally, there is a dynamic in a traditional classroom that MOOCs simply can’t provide. In small, in-seat courses and workshops, students discover that they are part of a community, in which each person has a responsibility to contribute and the reward of personal interaction. Such courses allow for flexibility, Socratic questioning, and serendipity. Face-to-face meetings and small-group dynamics are important parts of education and socialization. And they provide an essential break for students from their hours of online gaming, posting and browsing.
One other analogy that comes up in discussions of MOOCs is “correspondence course.” It’s considered a dirty term, and yet, it may be an accurate description as thousands of students and piecework adjuncts labor at their solitary tasks.
And there may be something to be learned from a fictional account of a correspondence school: J. D. Salinger’s “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.” The alienated protagonist concludes that “We are all nuns” -- working silently, separately, seeking salvation.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor emeritus of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.