• November 1, 2014

The Future Is Now, and Has Been for Years

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I think I taught the first MOOC in history. It was the spring of 1994.

I call it the best idea I ever had in the shower. About to teach a standard course, introducing the life and thought of St. Augustine, I wanted to do better. What about, I thought in midshampoo, inviting the rest of the world into the classroom? The Internet, after all. ...

By today's standards the technology was primitive. The first graphical Web browser had just been released, but very few people had it—or enough network connection to use it. So we depended on Gopher, the early Internet protocol, to deliver the syllabus and texts, and an old Listserv e-mail list for discussion. "Marketing" consisted of posting notices on various e-mail lists of interest, notably the venerable Humanist list that still flourishes. It worked, and went viral—500 people signed up.

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The dozen advanced students paying tuition had a seminar on Monday afternoons to discuss the week's work, and they were assigned in rotation to write up the day's discussions and post them on the e-mail list overnight. Then the discussion caught fire: Hundreds listened, a few dozen participated, a couple of dozen participated very actively, including some remarkable people.

One was the classic country vicar, one a junior academic in an Islamic university far away. We all paused at hearing of a lecture there by a Franciscan cleric that led the local professors to observe that it was a shame Christianity was not a truly rational religion, like Islam. Not the sort of thing I'd heard in courses on Christian antiquity before. To this day, I rarely visit a new campus without an eager approach from some senior academic recalling the excitement of the discussion and the exhilaration of the potential it revealed.

When the MOOC media blitz began this year, it all sounded familiar. Where's the idea been? The truth is, it never went away. But even with today's seemingly unlimited bandwidth, devices nimbly offering video and audio, and millions of netizens, the magic has its limits.

Whenever I teach, whatever I teach, one thing is on my mind: How can I help the students, whether frosh or doctoral candidates, kindle, stoke, and sustain their own energy, the better to master difficult material swiftly and retain it? I can imagine the spaces and places far from our classroom where the students carry on the work we start together, and I wonder what we can do together to make it easier for them to be the learners they want to be, or think they want to be.

When the students are far flung, when their costs of failure are low and their rewards hard to describe and even harder to turn to financial benefit, when personal contact is minimal, then the challenge of transmitting the intensity that underlies every successful academic exercise gets a lot harder for the teacher. It's not that smart people haven't been thinking about this one for 20 years—but we still haven't solved the puzzle. And if we can't solve that problem, then we don't yet have a tool for solving any of our most obvious hard problems.

Our public institutions, awash in students but not money, need to find better ways to engage large numbers of students effectively. But MOOC's aren't there for them yet: So far, there's nothing here that people are willing to pay for. Students who cannot spend the requisite time inside the walls of an institution of higher education can't get credit and therefore certification and therefore employability from a MOOC. These courses can't make a student a paralegal or a physicist or a banker. And faculty who thrive on the craftwork of education don't yet find the personal rewards of teaching a MOOC powerful enough to sustain them to come back and back and back again.

Yet the few MOOC experiences of this past spring have gotten everyone talking. There will be dozens if not hundreds by fall, hundreds if not thousands by next spring. Charisma routinizes faster than ever these days, and—eventually—the magic fades. The charm of novelty will wear off, on all sides, and students and faculty will drift away, pursuing other satisfactions. Don't get me wrong­—I'm not predicting that MOOC's have no future; I'm saying that the revolution they supposedly represent is already here, and has been happening at least since some of us scented it back in 1994.

In a hundred ways, teaching and learning in modern higher education have already undergone their sea change. We have tools that lead us to resources once undreamed of, we communicate with our students and colleagues around the world richly and instantaneously and unceasingly, we make the impossibly abstruse visible and ubiquitous, and we test and quiz and assess and challenge in myriad new ways. Community colleges and for-profits and elite universities, in the United States and in far less privileged places, all benefit.

The work of innovation is hard and incremental and expensive and sometimes frustrating. Not everything works, but lots of what we try does work. And the would-be learners who come into our creaky, bricks-and-mortar, disrespected institutions are the better for it. Whatever miracles the much-hyped MOOC has to offer, and there may be many someday, it would be good if more trustees and regents and politicians and philanthropists knew how successful we already have been in a revolution whose future is now.

After 10 years as provost of Georgetown University, James J. O'Donnell returns to teaching classics this fall.

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