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Why We Fear MOOCs

In a 2002 book the anthropologist David D. Gilmore explored our culture’s fascination with monsters. He noted that most monsters are a sort of hybrid. They defy simple explanation because they tend to straddle categories. They might be part human and part animal (like a werewolf) or part living and part dead (like a vampire). The monster is thus a mutated version of something we are already familiar with; it is both familiar and strange. It’s the monster’s amorphous nature that we find upsetting—it blurs categories, so it upsets the natural order of things, causing chaos.

I think that’s why we fear MOOCs. As hybrids, they defy easy categorization and threaten to upset the tidy categories we have for judging who is and is not college-educated. Like monsters, MOOCs threaten to disrupt our social world and bring chaos in their wake.

Our most basic understanding of the college experience used to be twofold: It occurs during a finite period of time, and in a fixed place known as a campus. Those two assumptions have taken on the status of  “social facts,” in the words of Émile Durkheim. Both of those ideas are so much a part of our culture that we often do not even notice them or think to question them.

First, we celebrate a practice called “going to college,” which, for many students, includes living on a physical campus that is often a sort of sanctuary, set apart from the everyday life of work and commerce and populated by a student body almost exclusively composed of those under 30. No matter which college a student attends, it will have its own architecture, social hierarchies, behavioral norms, dress code, and rituals.

College-marketing materials help normalize that assumption of place. They show classrooms, dormitories, and libraries—the physical structures where people go to receive an education. One of the first questions we might ask a new acquaintance is, “Where did you go to college?” We speak of the empty nest, which parents experience when their children leave home to go to college, and we deride the “helicopter parent” who doesn’t understand that going to college represents the establishment of a physical boundary between the territory that parents control (the home) and the territory that they do not control (the university).

The “boomerang child,” who returns home after attending university, makes us equally uncomfortable on some level. Parents may feel that they have to explain or apologize for having a young adult living in their home past college because it is seen as a violation of unspoken norms regarding how we live in the space of our homes, and how young people should live in the world.

Second, a college education is seen as something that occurs during a finite period of time, usually the four years between the ages of 18 and 22. Universities sometimes label those who deviate from that schedule as “nontraditional.”

What is not often acknowledged, however, is how our understanding of college has created and reinforced rigid social distinctions in American life. In previous generations, it was abundantly clear who had attended college and who had not. College graduates might speak differently, have different pursuits (theater versus television, for example), travel more, or read more books. Attending college served as a clear marker of social class.

Clubs like the American Association of University Women validated those distinctions, and even before Internet dating, social-matching agencies often collected information about one’s education attainments. It is not uncommon even now for the alumni of colleges to meet and marry, going on to produce “legacies” who aspire to graduate from the same institution.

Thus, being college-educated does not simply signify that one has completed a task; it is a facet of one’s identity.

New types of education threaten to set that social hierarchy on its head. One can learn through a variety of means in a variety of locations. Education is increasingly disembodied, not linked to a specific place or even a specific country. It no longer requires the establishment of a place—a campus—with the attendant social groups composed of people who have been presorted along specific intellectual and economic lines. In this way, higher education has become merely a good to be attained, rather than an identity to be achieved.

You can sense this shift in the discussions that parents of college-age children frequently have with one another and in the basic question they ask themselves: “What are we paying for?” Some parents insist that the residential-college experience is still desirable, that they are paying not only for classes or access to professors but also for the ability of their children to join a community of learning for some period of time, not marred by the simultaneous need to work or earn a living. Some parents try to justify their own devotion to the college experience by couching it in economic terms. The networking opportunities, they argue, cannot be replicated at commuter colleges or online.

Perhaps we still want our children to be marked as “people who went to college” and are concerned that they can’t earn that seal of approval unless they physically attend a residential college for four years. Perhaps as a culture we are threatened by the new blurring of the lines that seems to be taking place, in which the old sorting mechanisms will no longer work and the distinctions between those who did and didn’t “go” to college are not so clear-cut.

New questions arise: Will online and residential-college graduates marry one another? Can you be a legacy of an online university? How do you determine who is and isn’t a college graduate, once higher education becomes a process pursued over a lifetime rather than a hoop to jump through between the ages of 18 and 22? How might the dynamics in a marriage or a social circle change over time as one or more individuals complete online degrees or acquire certifications? How will our social patterns change when people begin to acquire education outside of the normal or expected sequences?

Maybe insisting on residential colleges is a reactionary attempt to hold onto rigid social hierarchies. We need to embrace the blurring of boundaries taking place, to make room for a more-equitable society.

Mary Manjikian is an assistant professor of government at Regent University.

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