Symposium Entry

To consider online education, consider Socrates first

January 14th, 2015

Problems exist, but there are examples of online courses and online institutions that are making it work.

The often-quoted Socrates line, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” is sometimes translated, “Life without inquiry is not worth living.” The second translation is more apt when thinking about the lives we live (or should live) as educators and researchers: inquiry being at the heart of all we do inside colleges and universities throughout the world. Both Capra’s and Meisenhelder’s symposium articles seek to add to the much needed inquiry into questions about MOOCs and other online educational approaches.

Much of university life has remained constant since Socrates engaged his students in the first academy; however, with the rapid growth of technological innovation this millennium, many critics argue that radical changes are necessary in the academic world and that technology is the way to improve (and to provide) education for all. It is a big claim, one often made by people who spend little or no time in university classrooms (actual or virtual).

In the earliest months of the new century, the focus on technology in education was taking firm root, and many people like Bill Gates[1] were offering exciting ways we might use technology to enhance the educational experience—albeit an experience that seemed still to include a classroom and a teacher. Little more than a decade later, the public was warned that a tsunami was coming in the form of MOOCs that would wipe out education as we had known it, and in the aftermath, courses from the finest elite universities free to the world would be the norm.

My adventures in MOOC-land began when I became part of one of those elite teams—one from the Georgia Institute of Technology, funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—to test the possibilities and limits of providing a course in first-year writing. I chronicled that adventure in a series of process-focused articles.[2]

Yes—Pedagogy is lacking

In those articles (as well as in articles and book chapters that followed[3][4]), I was immediately concerned with issues concerning the pedagogical practices as they were affected by the platform. As Capra argues, “Immense investments in technology, training, and technological support for students have resulted in well-oiled machines that are not always pedagogically sound.” I would further her argument by saying that those machines were sometimes not particularly well oiled from a fundamental standpoint.

The rush to push MOOCs onto the market meant that many aspects of traditional learning had not been addressed, but other issues, like providing tools that fully accommodate students with disabilities were completely unavailable. As Capra notes, retention is a huge problem in MOOCs, and often the problems associated with functionality caused students to abandon courses.

Capra also explores the idea that faculty are usually too far removed from the course design of MOOCs and other online courses, these tasks being given to staff who are not necessarily specialists in a given field. This highlights another problem with MOOCs and some other online courses—even if you aren’t paying a traditional professor, someone will have to design, implement, and evaluate a course in addition to teaching it. Consequently, there can be situations where efficiency and cost-savings are actually just a kind of cost shifting.

(Next page: Examples of success; bigger issues)