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To MOOC, or not to MOOC, that is the question.

'WE ARE AT A CROSSROADS!" A TIRED PHRASE HABITUALLY uttered by politicians. In the 1998 dark comedy bearing his surname, the fictitious Senator Jay Billington Bulworth was repeating that phrase ad infinitum; eventually he became suicidally disillusioned.

Of late, academics have been waving the crossroads flag. Tuition is fast rising; administrators' compensation and numbers are swelling; academe is a business; for-profit institutions of higher education are mushrooming; the end of college as we know it; online courses will one day reign supreme; engineering students need hands-on training from the get-go. When are we going to reach the freeway?

Two books I recently came across brought those road metaphors racing. The first, A Whole New Engineer, by David E. Goldberg and Mark Somerville (ThreeJoy Press: Douglas, MI; 264 pp; 2014), describes the change in engineering education that is taking place at the newly minted Olin College of Engineering and the more established University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. By emphasizing entrepreneurship, innovation, creativity, and foremost, hands-on training early in the undergraduate experience, the authors predict a revolution in engineering education, not confined to the two pioneering institutions but rather spreading nationwide, perhaps even worldwide.

In the second book, The End of College (Riverhead Books: New York; 277 pp; 2015), Kevin Carey prognosticates the future of learning and the university of everywhere based upon emerging massive open online courses (MOOCs). Rising tuition prices and a flagging global economy, combined with advances in information technology, are leading to a rapidly changing scene from traditional lecture-hall teaching to online education. In a New York Times op-ed, the business journalist Joe Nocera describes The End of College thus: "[The book] is both a stinging indictment of the university business model and a prediction about how technology is likely to change it. [Carey's] vision is at once apocalyptic and idealistic. He calls it 'The University of Everywhere'."

While different, the two books ride on a homologous theme: the revolutionary future of undergraduate education. Ironically, however, hands-on engineering is rather difficult to teach online. Carey's book is written in an engaging, journalistic style, while that of Goldberg and Somerville is more scholarly. Both vigorously argue their respective viewpoints. The two books are, for the most part, well researched, argued, and written. Both have been featured in The New York Times and similar high-end publications.

Carey is a professional writer, while Goldberg and Somerville are not. It shows. Goldberg self-published A Whole New Engineer, and I found the first syntax error in the preface's third line, and others followed. One presumes that copyediting is also a relic. The reading gets enervating after a couple of dozen pages. On the other hand, I couldn't put Carey's book away.

A Whole New Engineer has nine chapters introduction, epilogue, and endnotes, but no index. In a nutshell, here are the seven communiques commanded by Goldberg and Somerville: (i) Stop taking the crisis in engineering education for granted; (ii) Stop basing the education system on an operating system of fear; (iii) Stop boring our students into dull obedience; (iv) Stop educating engineers as technical brains on a stick; (v) Stop assuming that the central actor in education is the professor; (vi) Stop throwing Ph.D.s into classrooms as experts; (vii) Stop assuming that educational transformation can be performed by a system designed in the 11th century, a system designed to maintain the status quo. Paul Krupin, publicist for the drill sergeants, issued a press release that starts with: "Can we interest you in a feature story, an interview with [the authors], or perhaps a review of the incredible new remarkable book titled A Whole New Engineer?" Good grief! Enough said.

The End of College has 12 chapters, endnotes, and index. Carey writes about his experience attending a very successful MOOC, Introduction to Biology--The Secret of Life, offered at MIT by Professor Eric S. Lander, a first-rate scholar and an exquisite teacher.

This is like taking down a sparrow with a machine gun. If one categorizes Carl Sagan's Cosmos as a MOOC, then that must be the greatest thing since sliced bread. But the archetypal MOOC class is not offered by either Lander or Sagan. Several of my colleagues and I have taught online classes, and the experience was not particularly enthralling for students or teachers.

Carey occasionally is a bit loose with his facts. For example, he writes that Lander led the Human Genome Project, which in fact was led by Frances S. Collins. Lander was the first author in the 2001 Nature paper that presented a draft of the human genome. Carey propagates the error in more than one place. Nevertheless, the book for the most part is meticulously researched and presented.

I happen to have views that somewhat differ from those advocated in the two books. On the issue of pre-calculus, hands-on engineering, I am all right with that as long as the students are made aware of the engineering science to follow. Ant and pyramid engineering were the norm prior to the dawn of modern science, but the space shuttle was designed with a thorough understanding of the laws of nature. Engineering schools should be graduating engineering scientists, not engineering technologists. There is nothing to prevent the former from becoming entrepreneurs, innovators, and idea creators.

I would be happy with an occasional online class offered by the likes of Eric Lander and Carl Sagan. But the structured, lecture-based courses, with frequent assessment, are still needed in order for undergraduates to learn how to learn. MOOCs are not much different from the information available on the Internet. Some are more factual than others. Information and knowledge are, of course, two different animals. In a 2012 New York Times op-ed, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson, likened a memorable non-virtual course to a jazz composition: "There is a basic melody that you work with--as defined by the syllabus--but there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against the disciplining background."

There are scores of other books and articles that treat the themes discussed in the two books. The jury is still divided as to which side of the road to take. Yogi Berra said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." May the best man, woman, or issue take the "right" side of the fork.

MOHAMED GAD-EL-HAK is the Inez Caudill Eminent Professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Contact him at
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Author:Gad-el-Hak, Mohamed
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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