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Student protests are seemingly everywhere. What began at the University of Missouri has spilled over onto college campuses across the country and onto front-page news and editorials from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal.

At first glance, any linkage between such protests and an op-ed about online education feels far-fetched, a tad too forced. What would the issue of race relations on campus, of social justice, have to do with online education and MOOCs? (I know, I know, they are not the same thing; far from it; I just couldn’t resist the alliteration of the title.)

As it turns out, a lot.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the traditional critiques (or defenses) of online education and diversity. We all know by now that those enrolled in MOOCs are for the most part those who already have the credentials, opportunities, and access; we are also acutely conscious of the inconvenient reality that even with a so-called digital democracy of global and free openness, a deep and divisive divide permeates who benefits from such a digital cornucopia of learning technologies.

But this is not the issue at hand. Rather, what I want to make vivid is that such student protests reveal a true limit to online education and, at the very same time, offer a powerful reminder for the potential power of the hybridization of higher education.

To see this, we must first understand that scholars usually differentiate between a weak and a strong multiculturalism. The former goes by lots of different labels, such as difference multiculturalism or cultural competence, with an emphasis on respecting and celebrating the voices and traditions of others and of coming to understand oneself and one’s own implicit biases and privileges. The latter is what is usually found within critical theory or anti-oppressive education, with an emphasis on social justice issues and the overturning of deeply-embedded cultural and societal norms of, for example, systemic racism and the institutionalization of masculine and heteronormative privilege.

The student protests are, by and large, all about strong multiculturalism. As Henry Reichman, chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, commends in a recent op-ed, today’s students “have begun to grapple with issues that their elders have resisted tackling for far too long.”


Issues such as racism, systemic oppression, and white privilege are difficult stuff to talk about, much less to adequately address and reform. As Amherst’s President phrased it in a letter to students and the larger community, “We agree with the students that racism and other deeply entrenched forms of prejudice and inequality continue to affect our institutions and our culture as a whole. And we acknowledge that our efforts to achieve a more inclusive and egalitarian environment are insufficient…[Yet] What is going on at Amherst right now is not at odds with our educational mission or an aberration from its course. It is part of a struggle in the direction of greater awareness, understanding, and freedom from ignorance, prejudice, and narrow ideologies…The complexity of the issues is challenging, yes, but also energizing…”

Reichman makes a similar point, drawing out the “teachable moment” and the critical need for students’ academic freedom to engage in such protests: students “have made and will again make mistakes. They will offend others even as they respond to deeper offenses against their own dignity. They may demonstrate indifference to the rights of others, as protesters everywhere always have. But, in doing so, they will learn. And that, it seems to me, is the essential point. Student academic freedom, in the final analysis, is about the freedom to learn. And learning is impossible without error.”

And it is here where we get to the heart of matter. 

For such protests are not happening at institutions such as Western Governors University or Southern New Hampshire University or the University of Phoenix or the American Public University System. To put it bluntly, student protests don’t happen in online universities or through competency based education. (There are no doubt numerous mitigating sociological factors at play here, not least of which are the student demographics at these institutions; but as the graduate student protests at the University of Missouri made abundantly clear, age is not the determining factor.)

I would suggest that such protests do not happen at online institutions because online education is fundamentally organized (pedagogically and structurally) to promote a very particular type of learning; a learning without error. What I mean by this is that online education (and here I clump together MOOCs, online education, and CBE) is an incredibly effective and efficient mechanism for content knowledge delivery. It is structured around a paradigmatic notion of curriculum, instruction and assessment as ultimately stable, singular, and solvable. In this model, everything is able to be unbundled: the curriculum; faculty roles; an academic major. It is much like when the production line (the deep implications that everything – products, people’s tasks, systems – could be reverse-engineered) revolutionized how things were built.

In one respect there is nothing wrong with that. Such knowledge is what learning theorists describe as declarative and procedural knowledge. We need to know stuff and what to do with it, whether it is writing a paper or solving an equation. Think of this as the kindling, the building blocks and foundations, for future learning. Online education can be incredibly powerful at teaching about many issues; and exactly because it is all about reverse-engineering the teaching and learning process, research has by now shown that students can learn in such models as well as in face-to-face instruction. (And, to be honest, we must also acknowledge that much of face-to-face instruction suffers from the exact same stand-and-delivery paradigmatic perspective of content delivery; but that’s a whole other discussion.)

(My hunch, by the way, is that the limit case to good online education is exactly something as complex as weak multiculturalism. This is the limit case of helping students to the edges of their comfort zones, to the conceptual edges of how far can a student change his or her own perspective of the world.)

But learning theorists also talk about the critical importance of contextual knowledge, of applying such knowledge in real-world situations. This is what we usually talk about as linking theory to practice, whether it be through project- or problem-based learning, experiential education, or “high impact” practices. It is that transformative moment where we envision a faculty member actually sparking a match of engagement to the kindling of information that students may possess. It is the passion of that fire where information is transformed into knowledge as we come to see and embrace the larger purpose of our learning.

What these student protests show is that the oxygen for sustaining such fires rely to a large extent on exactly the “errors” of engagement that Reichman referenced. Online education may on a shallow level support and even encourage student engagement. But it is not built for nor able to sustain such contextual learning.

But again, there is nothing wrong with that. We already knew that there are deep limits to the power of online learning; we already knew that a truly transformative education requires a blending of what both educational models have to offer. So what these student protests have done is just remind us that the purpose of the university is about much more than the delivery of information and that we need both the kindling of information and the spark of transformation. Because we must always allow for and indeed encourage an educational system where those moments of learning are not just sparks that create a flame, but also an explosion.

Dan Butin, PhD, is a Full Professor and Founding Dean of the School of Education & Social Policy at Merrimack College and the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Democracy.

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