The Kennedy Institute of Ethics here on campus is developing “Introduction to Bioethics” as a massive open online course set to launch April 15.

As a graduate fellow working on the core design team at the Kennedy Institute, I’ve lately been having the following conversation a lot:
Colleague: “Hey, how was your summer?”

Me: “Exciting! I am working on developing one of Georgetown’s very first MOOCs!”

Colleague: “MOOC? As in, those huge, online courses that are threatening to destroy the university system?”

No one who is working on a MOOC can pretend not to have thought about the impact of MOOCs on higher education. As an ethics institute in particular, the KIE team has done a lot of soul-searching about the promises and challenges that MOOCs represent.

The noble promise of a MOOC is to “democratize education”: through them, anyone with access to an internet connection can learn from world-class professors. One of the worries, though, is that this isn’t quite right. As a friend put it to me earlier this year, “MOOCs don’t democratize education; they democratize information.” The distinction here is supposed to highlight the difference between an interactive education of the kind my students get in their Georgetown classroom, and what can be gleaned by having information delivered.

Further, many academics see online education as a threat to the traditional university education. The fear is that administrators, motivated by financial considerations, will gladly take the opportunity to educate more students with fewer faculty, by employing large-scale, minimally interactive — or non-interactive — education models. For those of us with a dedication to the liberal arts, this sounds dark indeed.

But I doubt that MOOCs will replace traditional education so thoroughly. MOOCs by their nature have one-way teaching as their strength and interaction as their weakness. There is actually another technology with that exact same portfolio: textbooks. Just as the advent of textbooks did not destroy the university system, I doubt that making textbooks free for everyone would do so either.

My highly speculative, but not uninformed, guess about MOOCs, then, is that MOOCs will become yet another pedagogic tool. As professors, we will choose both books and online material for our students to use, and if we do it well — both in creating the material and in using it — the students’ experience will be enhanced as a result.

I recently made a trip to my alma mater where my wife and I shared a meal with some of our undergraduate mentors. Our college is very small and heavily focused on the liberal arts. When asked about my current work, I steeled myself for another iteration of the conversation that began this reflection.

What I got instead, however, was a wonderfully reflective openness to the potential of MOOCs. All three professors sitting at our table immediately remarked on the promise that such a technology holds for a small college like theirs. As my adviser from all those years ago put it: “You remember what it’s like here: We do our best to provide an intimate education, but we’re not a research university. Our perspectives are different from those of the professors at Georgetown or Harvard. How could it hurt to expose our students to these brilliant thinkers and their ways of doing philosophy? When you choose a liberal arts college, you make a trade-off: You gain personalized education but pass on the opportunity to learn from world-class scholars. Isn’t it clearly a benefit to be able to bring some of the latter into the curriculum?”

Our undergraduate professors were not worried about being turned into glorified teaching assistants. I suppose that using an uninteresting MOOC poorly could have that result, so this seems like an exceptionally good reason to make good MOOCs and lobby for using them well. We at the KIE are going to do our best on the former front. It sounds like my alma mater is ready to make progress on the latter. I hope that more colleges and universities come to embrace a similar perspective, so that we can work together to ensure that MOOCs have a positive influence on higher education.

Travis N. Rieder is a graduate fellow in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. Engaging Bioethics appears every other Tuesday.

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