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No MOOCs?!

I’ve gotten a lot of comments by email and “other locations” on the web about my recent post on Tom Friedman’s expert certification of the reality of MOOCs.

One comment is, of course:  Why the heck are you so obsessed with MOOCs?  Well, I’m not. But saying MOOC (almost rhymes with puke) out loud is hilarious, you have to admit.

I’ve gotten several several emails and other comments about what the sound of MOOC “reminds me of.”  Well, my favorite is the old activist slogan “No nukes!”  And that’s the only reason why this post is entitled “No MOOCs.”

An accounting professor (and very good guy) complained to me that I was dissing accounting by saying it could be taught via MOOC.  Well, maybe I was from my lofty basket in the clouds with Socrates or whatever.  But all I really meant was that teaching accounting is the conveying of information and technique.  Accounting TEXTBOOKS aren’t meant to be great or even “real” books.  More generally, I go along with those who say that MOOCS—like POWER POINT—can be excellent ways of conveying technical information.  And I’ve said time and again that it’s inevitable and beneficial that most education in a middle-class democracy will be technical education.  People really do need marketable skills that make them productive.  I’ve faked my way through life pretty much without them, but I don’t recommend that for YOU.

I really don’t mean to diss accounting.  Accounting, in fact, is surely the most real and probably the most intellectual part of any education in business.  The Harvard Business School might outsource accounting to some BYU MOOCie professor, but no MBA could not know the language of accounting.  The language of accounting—together with the language of law and the language of statistics—are indispensable components of our high-tech world of commerce and bureaucracy.  Really knowing the world of accounting tells you a lot more about what’s really going than obsessing over some HBS “case study.”

To lord it over—from a position of leadership—the worlds of commerce and bureaucracy also requires knowledge of the  language of human beings as more than techno-productive beings. It requires, as people used to say, the study of dialectics and rhetoric and the “psyche-logical” content that is the indispensable foundation of that study.  (For what that content is, you can begin with the suggestions at the end of first book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.)

That content, in fact, you have to learn from “real” books and so not from MOOCs.  So to really get the most out of HBS, you need a top-flight liberal education first, what can only be learned from literature, philosophy, history, theology, and political science in the old-fashioned “knowledge of the art of ruling” sense.

The only MOOCs or TEDs worth watching are those made by men and women with the mastery of language that could only come from a relatively “traditional” liberal education.  Certainly, it’s that kind of education in “real” books that’s responsible for Michael Sandel being the MOOC rock star that he is.  The same goes for the eloquence of Peter Thiel.

I’ve (once again) blathered on too long.  So I’ll close with a particularly astute comment I received about the idea of watching MOOCS as the “homework” basis for class discussion:

Current students (“distractees”) would likely take at least 90 minutes to watch a 60 minute lecture—with less retention. I hadn’t thought about that, but it certainly makes sense. Since all students (and, indeed, all modern Americans) now “multi-task” throughout the day—thanks to these handy, distracting gadgets—and since we all now know that true multi-tasking is, in fact, impossible for human beings, the kind of concentrated attention that is signaled “socially” by the lecture-hall format just isn’t there in the privacy of one’s room. So insofar as attention—see Simone Weil—is at the center of all serious learning, going to the “watch the lecture whenever you want” (while you’re also playing Gameboy) can’t end well.

So my prediction: there are going to be a thousand studies over the next five years showing that MOOCs are at least as good and probably superior to traditional educational forms—and then, all of a sudden, we’ll see thousands of studies centering precisely on this attention deficit problem and asking how on earth we ever could have imagined that these MOOCs would really work. 

Just three comments:  Isn’t the reference to the Gameboy charmingly quaint?  And students already play with their various i-gadgets when in the classroom while “multitasking” or just pretending to listen to the droning professor.  Maybe the only solution is to ban all gadgets from class and keep all classes small enough that the ban can be effective.

One more thing:  Someone commented I’m just envious of the MOOC success of others.  Well, MOOC-makers, I’m ready to serve.  I’ve lectured at over 100 colleges, usually for money.  Here’s a typical comment: “You’re even funnier in person than you are as a blogger.”  Wouldn’t be hard.


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