Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

November 20, 2013

Founder of online learning changes course

(Continued)

The way Fast Company has it, Thrun chucks those San Jose State students under the self-driving Google car faster than he chugs up a hill on his custom-made road bike, leaving a panting Max Chafkin in the dust to ponder the following Thrunism: “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives. . . . It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

The problem, of course, is that those students represent the precise group MOOCs are meant to serve. “MOOCs were supposed to be the device that would bring higher education to the masses,” Jonathan Rees noted. “However, the masses at San Jose State don’t appear to be ready for the commodified, impersonal higher education that MOOCs offer.” Thrun’s cavalier disregard for the San Jose students reveals his true vision of the target audience for MOOCs: students from the posh suburbs, with 10 tablets apiece and no challenges whatsoever — that is, the exact people who already have access to expensive higher education.

It is more than galling that Thrun blames students for the failure of a medium that was invented to serve them, instead of blaming the medium that, in the storied history of the “correspondence” course (”TV/VCR repair”!), has never worked. For him, MOOCs don’t fail to educate the less privileged because the massive online model is itself a poor tool. No, apparently students fail MOOCs because those students have the gall to be poor, so let’s give up on them and move on to the corporate world, where we don’t have to be accountable to the hoi polloi anymore.

Successful education needs personal interaction and accountability, period. This is, in fact, the same reason students feel annoyed, alienated and anonymous in large lecture halls and thus justified in sexting and playing World of Warcraft during class — and why the answer is not the MOOC, but the tiny, for-credit, in-person seminar that has neither a sexy acronym nor a potential for huge corporate partnerships.

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