Feature

Are small, private online courses the future of higher education in America?

With the traditional university system stuck in the past, those interested in a real education may have to go elsewhere

Just a few years ago, a huge vogue erupted among higher-ed administrators for MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Anant Agarwal, president of the online education company edX, at the time made a bold vow: "Online education will change the world."

After the educational elite launched these seemingly visionary programs, however, their enthusiasm was swiftly curbed. As Stephanie Garlock observes in the new issue of Harvard Magazine, The New York Times dubbed 2012 "The Year of the MOOC," but before 2013 was out, The Washington Post was asking if MOOCs were "already over."

However, a wellspring of fresh faith has surged up around so-called SPOCs. Small and Private, not Massive and Open, SPOCs are boasting better completion rates and better vibes than their highly scalable predecessors. Garlock posits a developing consensus: "[B]y using technology to combine the centuries-old lessons of campus education with the best promises of massive learning, SPOCs may be the most relevant and promisingly disruptive experiments the MOOC boom has yet produced."

So long as the SPOC model is restricted to accredited universities, however, its impact is likely to be limited in at least one important way.

Even if, as Garlock suggests, it "enables deep engagement through intense Socratic discussions" in a way that far surpasses what MOOCs can achieve, it's still beholden to the formal and informal rules of academic officialdom — where shifting, often shadowy moral and bureaucratic strictures have made the pursuit of wisdom in the classroom prohibitively difficult and risky.

Not only is "political correctness" at issue. Among intelligent observers, there are doubts that professors are still qualified to carry out their charge. At one time tenure was seen as a rigorous way to produce and protect wise scholars. Today, as the controversy over Gov. Scott Walker's crusade to destroy tenure at public universities shows, the institution has come into question.

On the right, tenure is seen as an archaic shelter for the inefficient and the decadent. On the left, meanwhile, critics proclaim that every professor — associate, assistant, or adjunct — should be the equal recipient of job safety requirements. "Yes, there are problems with tenure, but they are not the largely fictitious ones championed by right-wing jerks," Rebecca Schuman writes at Slate. "It's that too few people have it so there's nobody left to fight for it, and for the academic freedom it promises."

Alas, academic freedom is not a good thing in its own right, if the pursuit of wisdom is lost in the bargain.

So what's to be done? Rather than trying to get universities to shape up, we should recognize that the SPOC model will flourish best outside the confines of today's campus environment. In small, private forums, pioneers who want to pursue wisdom can find a radically alternate education — strikingly contemporary, yet deeply rooted in the ancient practice of conversational exegesis.

Everyone wins if that happens. Wisdom-seekers can connect cheaply, effectively, intimately, and quickly, even if they're dispersed over vast distances. Universities can withdraw fully from the wisdom business, and focus on the pedigree business. And the rest of us can get on with our lives.

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