The Scroll: The Pros and Cons of Online Learning and MOOCs

Last month, Thomas Friedman wrote a thoughtful column in the New York Times about his experience at a conference sponsored by Harvard and M.I.T. on “Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education.”

The challenge to traditional colleges from MOOCs – massive, open online courses – is very real, Friedman concludes. He believes the competition will force professors to improve their pedagogy and colleges to nurture the unique student-teacher interactions while blending in technology to improve outcomes and lower costs.

Dave Nimmer

Dave Nimmer

In short, the student would come alive as a critical thinker in her philosophy class while garnering enough skills and competency to land a job in her chosen field. I believe that is already happening at St. Thomas, in classrooms all over campus, where students are learning skills (as well as how to think) because of the lively, interactive nature of a well-taught class.

The lessons I learned as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin stick with me in my 70s, and they are not job skills. I recall a freshman philosophy class where we critically discussed the proofs for the existence of God. I remember a history course, prior to the Vietnam War, where we debated the basic tenets of American foreign policy. I treasure a Philosophy of Religion course that helped me to discover that, indeed, a rational man could believe in God.

College ought to prepare students to live a thoughtful, rich, rewarding and expansive life – as well as to get a job. Colleen Schreier, a communication and journalism senior at St. Thomas, had that kind of experience in a media law course she took last semester.

“Going in, I was pretty scared because the topic involved law and I’ve never been able to grasp the concepts,” she says. “But the thing that made this class was the interaction you had with everyone else each day.

“You would learn a concept and then be able to ask a follow-up or ‘What if?’ to test the boundaries of the new idea. By the end of the semester, my class had a handful of inside jokes that all pertained to something we learned.”

Junior Lindsay Goodwin discovered the combination of teaching and technology that Friedman talked about in her Introduction to Programming and Problem Solving class in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences. Associate Professor Patrick Jarvis was able, active and available.

“Even though the majority of the class work requires the use of computers, having certain lines of code written on the board as they’re being broken down is extremely helpful,” Goodwin says. “Whenever someone had a question, he or she could simply raise a hand and he (Jarvis) was there to help. That benefits students greatly.”

What also benefits students is the passion of the professor. Goodwin found that in Professor Bob Craig’s Visual Communication course, the favorite in her college career. “His passion and excitement for us to learn,” she says, “created an environment for my class to have discussions.”

It would be tough, I believe, to create passion online for a course like Professor Lon Otto’s Intro to Imaginative Writing. This kind of writing is the stuff of life’s short stories, the ones we want to gracefully and artfully recall as we age. Somewhat surprisingly to me, Otto is of three or four minds about online learning and writing.

“I love face-to-face teaching and learning,” he says, “in discussion-based classes. It’s what feels most natural and engaging to me. On the other hand, at fairly advanced levels, anyway, writing can certainly be taught effectively through active, thoughtful correspondence. This was true long before the Internet was available, back when we wrote letters and sent manuscripts to each other in envelopes with stamps on them.

“Passion about our subject matter is probably most readily and richly conveyed when we’re in each other’s presence, when we can hear a voice tremble or grow harsh or quiet, when we notice the little hunch in the shoulders or narrowing of the eyes as something strikes a person oddly … .”

Amen. At the age of 72, I find the richness of life is in the details, and they’re not always available from a 24-by-20-inch screen, a dozen icons and a blinking cursor.