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How Predatory Reformers Are Destroying Education and Profiting at Our Children's Expense

Online courses can't replace the good old fashioned teaching methods we once pioneered but are now driving Finland's educational success.

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These kinds of projects or extravagances—common at almost all major universities, public and private—are the institutional equivalent of bling. Instead of diamond studs and gaudy chains, universities build cute arts communities and hire hordes of staff—servants really, fetching books for students in an open library, renting cars for student volunteers for the ride to a nearby soup kitchen—to meet every student need.

Beyond buildings and bureaucrats, another sign of elite status is the race to provide the latest hot technology. Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the new thing. The creations of technology titans at prestigious universities, MOOCs are underwritten by cutting-edge investment firms in the same Silicon Valley founded by Robert Noyce. Columnists such as the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman wax lyrical about the possibilities. Words such as “transformational,” “disruptive,” “radical,” “irreversible,” and “inevitable” appear in every puff piece. New university presidents—such as Christopher Eisgruber, the Princeton provost recently tapped to succeed the retiring Shirley Tilghman—feel compelled to include the increasing use of online instruction as one of their core commitments. And existing university presidents, such as the University of Virginia’s Teresa Sullivan, risk immediate, public, and humiliating dismissal if they do not embrace this glittering technology quickly and passionately enough. President Sullivan was fired and then reinstated, but the message was clearly sent to all other university presidents and would-be presidents: sign on with MOOCs or face irrelevance. Faculty resistance to MOOCs is growing.

This is not to say that all claims made on behalf of online courses are ridiculous. If you are a good science student in rural Montana, and your high school does not offer AP Chemistry, an online option may be a very useful. Some fields of study—particularly those that depend on the transfer of technical information—lend themselves to online instruction more than others. But the MOOC movement is built on a set of very shaky assumptions. One is the notion that education is merely the transfer of information. Another is that information can be transferred more efficiently by an online presentation than by a teacher in a classroom. A third is that one celebrity professor performing for the online masses is more effective than one hundred capable professors in front of one hundred gatherings of students. All of these assumptions are untested.

If MOOCs were offered as an experiment, as an approach to be tested and evaluated and refined, that would be one thing. But MOOCs are being sold, hustled really, as the best and brightest breakthrough since the printing press. The MOOC sales staff all have what in religious circles is called a “witness story.” There’s always a poor lad or lass in some desperately poor place, as far away as possible, who takes a course that would never be available if not for MOOCs. I heard one recently about a boy in Mongolia who took a poetry course through an Ivy League online offering. Now, I’m glad that he had the chance to take that course. And I hope more have the opportunity. But, as scientists love to say, the plural of anecdote is not data. And it is reasonable to suggest that we need to see more data about the impact of MOOCs over time. The limited data already available are ambiguous. Yes, there seems to be enormous initial interest, with some courses attracting even hundreds of thousands of watchers. But the data also show that most of these watchers stop watching and that few finish. The dropout rate is far greater than the appalling rates in failing high schools that led the corporate and foundation elites to demand the restructuring and closing of these schools.

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