Thinking about MOOCs

In his essay on Christian practices and education, pharmacy Paul Griffiths talks about how liturgical practices incorporate lament and stammer. In the same way, he argues, Christian education can and should do the same thing.

Lament and stammer are not popular in our culture because they are messy and represent weakness and imperfection. We try to do everything in our power to scrub them from our church services, and from our culture. Think about the overly scripted mega church services. There is no room for hiccups, or mistakes. We even take the “real” pastor out of the equation and replace him with a slick video presentation of his sermon, one that can be reshot, edited, and molded to remove all glitches and slipups.

In education, “lament at one’s own incapacity for study and one’s failures as a student [and I would as a teacher and scholar as well] is intrinsic to learning.” (p. 120).


A mook: slang term for the hordes of standard-issue, disposable bad guys whom the hero mows down with impunity. Mooks/MOOCs is there a connection?
A mook: slang term for the hordes of standard-issue, disposable bad guys whom the hero mows down with impunity. Mooks/MOOCs is there a connection?

This has got me thinking about the shift in distance education to MOOCs. These massive open online courses are supposedly going to revolutionize higher education. They will be low-cost or even free. They won’t require an abundance of professors, but rather, the top scholar in the field will have their lectures recorded, and then graders will mark the students’ assignments.

I would suggest that MOOC’s will eliminate the practice of lament and stammer.

Students learn from lectures that go badly. Sometimes the professor fails to communicate concepts and ideas and yet in that learning takes place. It gives opportunity for students to ask questions, and it gives opportunity for the professor to try to clarify and reframe the discussion in a way that the student will grasp the concept. With a MOOC, the student is left to interact with a grader or TA, and that interaction is removed from the “now” of the lecture.

Students learn from professor’s struggles. One of the most profound teaching moments is hearing a professor admit “I don’t know” when it comes to a topic. By only hearing the “top scholar” the student may learn that “I don’t know” is a bad thing in academia.

Students also learn that studying and research is labour, a labour of love, but a labour nonetheless. If all they see is the “top scholar” who gets up and give a lecture on his area of expertise, a lecture that is edited and molded to be “relevant,” then the student may get the impression that research and teaching is easy. What they do not necessarily see is the years of rough drafts, rejection letters, and failed lectures that the scholar probably went through in the ascent to being top in their field. (How many people have seen actors on television and thought, “that’s so easy, I could do that” and don’t realize that for every successful actor there are hundreds more doing nothing more than working at Starbucks?)

Ultimately, what it comes down to is an understanding of the purpose of education. Is it merely about communicating information, or is it about formation of the student and the teacher? I’ve written before about the embrace of online education by Christian schools, and I think the caution I concluded with there, also applies in general to the development of MOOCs:

…online Christian education should not simply be an adoption of generic, secular online education models which are then just “baptized” as Christian.

Though MOOCs appear to the “wave of the future” I would caution that MOOCs might in fact be nothing more than a fad. Before blindly jumping on the bandwagon, we should prayerfully, thoughtfully consider the why and how MOOCs might be embraced in a way that the lament and stammer that can be retained, and encouraged.