MOOCs and the liberal arts: threat or opportunity?

Despite the ugly acronym, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are the talk of higher education today, The Huffington Post reports. Most of the debate centres on the quality of the free online courses with mega-enrolment figures offered by the likes of Coursera, Udacity, edX, FutureLearn, and OpenupEd. MOOCs elicit a double-edged fear: either that they are too dumbed-down to justify the hype or that they might be successful enough to revolutionise the whole sector. In the latter scenario, bricks and mortar universities reliant upon the large lecture hall are in for a rude shock. But if MOOCs do indeed transform the delivery of higher learning and knowledge what are the implications for the transmission of the liberal arts, namely the non-Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines? MOOCs hinge on the scalability of knowledge dissemination. Online survey courses with gigantic student numbers are by this token just as plausible for eighteenth-century French literature as for Physics 101. Lectures can be watched by all, while (providing there are sufficient resources) students are then sub-divided into smaller groups for peer work, group discussion, and assessment. What is not scalable, of course, is individual critique and feedback, which require the kind of student/staff ratio and personal interaction that only real-world universities can provide. Hence it is perfectly plausible to imagine that, save for the premier and best-funded institutions (who in fact are among the greatest backers of MOOCS), the majority of colleges and universities will outsource lecturing while specialising instead on individual feedback and mentoring.

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