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Educating Rita in the time of MOOC.

In the award-winning film Educating Rita, a hair dresser decides to find herself by taking an Open University course. Her English literature tutor is in a failing marriage, is alcoholic, and is aspiring to be a poet. The teacher ends up learning as much from his pupil as she learns from him. The story is about self-discovery and the power of choice that comes through education. The subtext is one-on-one tutoring.

One-on-one tutoring has existed since the beginning of civilization. Lecture-based instruction commenced before the invention of the printing press. Correspondence education is about a century old, and massive open online courses blasted off during the 2000s. Even Harvard is jumping into the fray, and the president of the University of Virginia nearly lost her job because she was not adapting Internet learning fast enough.

But perhaps we are forgetting something. In an influential lecture delivered in 1947, "The Lost Tools of Learning," Oxford-educated Dorothy L. Sayers said that we teach our children everything but how to learn.

The question today is: Are the Internet, online courses beamed to millions around the world, lack of proximity, and other modern realizations helping or hindering the quest for teaching how to learn? This contrarian believes the new pedagogic paradigm is, in the long run, a setback for the ability to learn and for honing critical thinking skills, in both the sciences and the humanities.

MOOC's outreach is enormous; it is free and no admission standards are applied, but in return no college credits are awarded. Students admitted to the offering college may take the same course and earn credits, but they have to pay.

Humans are social beings and learning is a social process. In our digital, mobile society, on-site discussion forums are still the most effective way for students to interact with teachers and each other. Even in a large lecture hall, a good teacher can sense the students' mood and receptivity, and instantly adapt to them.

Acquiring knowledge is not the same as knowing what to do with it. Learning to analyze, evaluate, synthesize, collaborate, innovate, and use the unlimited information available is what education is all about.

There are of course the fortunate few who have superior discipline, motivation, and intellect to self-learn and make sense of the boundless information out there, but the majority does not possess these gifts. MOOC and the Internet are no different from having a library at your disposal. Both offer monologues, not dialogues. Dialogues are individual, labor-intensive, and expensive, but they nurture learning and critical thinking. Monologues are the polar opposite.

Lecture-based instruction could undoubtedly be improved, but MOOC is far from being a panacea to our real or perceived pedagogical shortcomings. Would anyone want a physician or attorney who is taught the fundamentals of medicine or law via MOOC courses?

The Internet changed our world, to the better for the most part. But when it comes to education, teachers--whether lecturing or tutoring--should not be replaced by machines. Dehumanizing education the way factories were dehumanized won't improve the institution's productivity.

MOHAMED GAD-EL-HAK is the Inez Caudill Eminent Professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Contact him at gadelhak@vcuedu.
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Title Annotation:LETTERS & COMMENTS; massive open online courses
Author:Gad-El-Hak, Mohamed
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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