Briefly Noted: Patrick Deneen on Who’s to Blame for MOOCS

In a recent edition of The Chronicle Review, Patrick Deneen (Professor of Constitutional Studies and Political Science at University of Notre Dame) argues that many of the same faculties bemoaning the rise of MOOCs in higher-education share some of the blame in that rise.[1] Yet he also sees hope for a brighter future for higher education if we will return to a more quaint form of education. MOOCs (massive online open courses) are trumpeted by authors such as Thomas Friedman and Clay Shirky for their potential to democratize education. Under this view, more people will be able to access lectures from learned professors via MOOCs. Thus the educational playing field will be leveled in terms of cost, access, and effectiveness. Deneen notes that numerous faculties around the country, however, express strong reservations about MOOCS, and the potentially deleterious outcomes of a MOOC-dominated educational landscape.

Deneen considers it ironic that, “MOOCs are simply the natural extension of trends that have been at the heart of the modern university for decades” (B4). Despite their protest to MOOCs and the logic supporting their rise, “faculties have been deeply invested in the logic leading to the rise of MOOCs, and are fundamentally ill-prepared to mount a serious intellectual argument against them” (B4). Deneen notes the way American colleges and universities have moved away from the religious, cultural, and intellectual traditions of their founders, and the accompanying shift toward research-based universities (see the Ivy League as exhibit A). Among the global community, a “global research culture” now dominates (B5). In this culture, faculty members, courses, and curricula are homogenized. Higher education is more monochrome than ever.

MOOCs participate in and currently serve as the apex of this trend. “MOOCs are the Wal-Mart of higher education” (B5). MOOCs promise a high-quality education for everybody (or, at least, for anybody who possesses high-quality Internet service), delivered by ace lecturers, and offered for a low-low price. Deneen sees an analogy between the move toward MOOCs and the move toward large-scale, industrial farms during the Nixon era (under the ‘get big or get out’ mantra of his agriculture secretary, Earl Butz). This sort of promise seems to make a local faculty member’s personalized and contextualized lectures to embodied students seem “quaint.”

Yet Deneen sees a seed of hope in the small, local farm and farmer’s market approach to education–“those institutions that want not only to survive but to flourish, by refusing to go along with the monoculture” (B5). Often times such institutions are those with vibrant (not just in name) religious affiliations. This sort of education “requires hiring a faculty who expressly share a commitment to the institutional mission and attracting students who seek a distinctive education” (B5). Moreover, higher education of the locally grown sort would do a better job at contextualizing knowledge for students.

Deneen’s article raises questions that deserve to be treated extensively but, since this column is “briefly noted,” I’ll limit myself to a couple of brief comments.

First, Deneen and others are right to point to the deleterious effects which will result from an undisciplined embrace of MOOCs. MOOC domination would signal the triumph, in the academic arena, of globalization over localization. Students would no longer have access to localized and contextualized treatments of the history of philosophy, or of biology, Christian studies, or literary criticism. An increasing number of skilled faculty members may lose their jobs teaching introductory courses, and be replaced by a Harvard professor’s bloviations delivered via MOOC.

Second, however, MOOCs also represent a uniquely good opportunity both for institutions and for students. Institutions can offer MOOCS as a way of offering their unique curricula and faculty to students around the globe. SEBTS offered President Akin’s hermeneutics MOOC, which was taken by several thousand students around the globe. The advantages? For certain students who live in “closed countries” which are hostile to the Christianity, they were able to take a course that otherwise would not be offered in their country. For other students, they are able to “test the waters” of seminary education to see if this is for them. For yet others, they are able to hone their skills in biblical interpretation in order to be better Bible teachers in their churches and homes.

The benefits for SEBTS include yet another way to be a “Great Commission” seminary; we are offering education to some students who otherwise might not ever be able to take seminary courses. Another way of putting this point is that localization and contextualization are sometimes more confessional than geographical or cultural. Even though a Christian student in, say, Saudi Arabia, differs from President Akin culturally, he is similar to him confessionally. And even though he might not be able to enroll in a Baptist seminary in Saudi, he is able to take a course with SEBTS electronically. In the real (though not ideal) world, I consider this a victory.

[1] Patrick J. Deneen, “We’re All to Blame for MOOCs” in The Chronicle Review (June 7, 2013: B4–5)

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