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Dear Dr. Turkle,
I am writing this open letter to you after reading your chapter on Education in your important, indispensable, and beautifully written new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.
In the spirit of your wonderful and generous book, I’d like to offer my critique as an invitation to conversation.
Critique #1 - MOOCs and Online Education Are Not the Same Thing:
In Reclaiming Conversation, you make the mistake of characterizing MOOCs as interchangeable with online education.
This mistake is distressingly common amongst journalists, but in a book as influential as Reclaiming Conversation I find the conflation of these two educational methods to be particularly troublesome.
The only thing that MOOCs and traditional online education share is a common enabling set of technologies - the internet and the phone.
MOOCs contain two attributes that put them in a separate category to traditional online learning. First, they are built for scale. Second, they are built to be open.
Traditional online courses are designed neither for scale or for openness.
Traditional online courses are built around a model of a private community, one consisting of an educator and a limited number of students.
MOOCs are to traditional online learning as a Facebook-only friend is to a real friend.
Critique #2 - Traditional Online Education Privileges Relationships and Conversation:
What is lost in your conflation of MOOCs with traditional online courses is an appreciation of the degree to which online courses (and programs) are built around a pedagogical philosophy that is aligned with your main arguments in Reclaiming Conversation.
A quality traditional online course is built to maximize instructor presence, a strategy undertaken in service of developing a relationship between the educator and the learner.
In my experience with traditional online learning (and I’ve been at this for over 15 years), faculty are often surprised by how the online medium enables them to get to know their students as individuals.
Critique #3 - MOOCs, When Properly Conceived, Can Further Our Common Goals Around A Relational Model of Learning:
The mainstream of our open online learning community does not see MOOCs as a substitute for traditional teaching.
Rather, we see MOOCs primarily as a mechanism to enhance and improve the traditional relational model of learning.
We see MOOCs as an opportunity to experiment, to try new things, and to bring some of our research methodologies into the world of teaching and learning.
We also see MOOCs as an opportunity to build a new set of institutional capacities to advance residential learning, especially capacities around media, assessment, and instructional design.
The critique of the open online learning community of traditional education is not with courses built on conversation, interaction, and active learning.
Rather, our critique of the postsecondary status quo is with courses built on an information transmission model of teaching.
The motivation of many schools to participate offering open online courses is to discover what aspects of teaching can be done at scale, so that scarce resources and energy can be devoted to enhancing learning that is built on educator / student relationships.
Critique #4 - You May Discover Some Wonderful Things If You Taught Reclaiming Conversation as a MOOC:
I’d like to close this open letter with an invitation (of sorts). I think that you would love to teach Reclaiming Conversation as a MOOC.
A MOOC is not a substitute for a traditional (online or residential) course. They are different things.
Teaching Reclaiming Conversation (or your Memoir course) as a MOOC will allow you to do different things then what you can do in a book or in a regular course.
A MOOC is closer to public art than it is to a traditional class.
A MOOC is a team-produced academic creation.
As an art form, the shape of the MOOC is evolving and changing.
We are learning how to create peer conversation at scale. We are learning how to create digital materials that will inspire those with unlimited digital choices to spend their precious time engaging in our academic subjects.
If you developed and taught a MOOC you will learn some new things. You will learn some things about what you teach. And you will learn some things about how you teach.
Ideally, you will be able to bring these lessons and these materials back into your residential classes.