I Am Not a Machine

By Dan W. Butin

An education dean reflects on MOOCs …

I am not a machine.

This makes my college students happy. Though, to be honest, they assume as much since I walk into the classroom, make some small talk and launch into my lecture. After a few minutes, I may stop, ask for questions, prompt some discussion and perhaps tell a few bad jokes. Which should prove once and for all that I am human and fallible.

My students seem to gain from these lectures, the formal discussions and the informal banter. Most of them write coherent essays on the assigned topics, pass the midterm quizzes and submit fairly decent final projects. Some students are superb; others, well, they just barely make it through. Each year is like that, and each year I work on getting better. Semester by semester, year by year, I improve my teaching, provide new experiential activities and community-based projects, switch around my readings, and watch yet another set of students gain from my classes. I am proud of what I do and take seriously my job of preparing the next generation of future teachers.

But sometimes, late at night when I cannot sleep, I wonder if I am doing them a disservice. Maybe, just maybe, if I were a machine, the class would be better.

Let me explain.

According to the recent New York Times Education Life section, this was the “Year of the MOOC.” That’s “massive open online courses.” It’s what Times columnist David Brooks called a “campus tsunami” and Thomas Friedman declared as the “college education revolution.” That’s because anyone, anywhere can now take a course from some of the best instructors and institutions in the world just by logging on. Students watch short clips of the professors’ lectures, submit their quizzes to be graded by computer-automated systems and, for those who finish with a respectable score, get a certificate of completion.

In less than a year, close to 2 million students have enrolled in such courses and hundreds of thousands have finished. More students, for example, have registered for Coursera’s Modern Poetry course this semester (30,000+) than go to the University of Pennsylvania. Which is where, by the way, the instructor of that course teaches. So in one semester, the entire student population of the University of Pennsylvania could take his course. For free. In their pajamas. From home. Did I mention that some universities have begun to provide transfer credit for completion of such courses? And that one blogger couldn’t stop gushing about this “delightful course” and the “dynamic, charismatic teacher we all wish we could have had in school.”

So let me be blunt: higher education is about to be fundamentally disrupted for a vast number of students. For the tens of thousands in California who could not get into a community college course because of state budget cuts; for the hundreds of thousands who drop out of postsecondary education every year due to expenses or boredom or life taking an unexpected turn; for the millions in developing countries who have minimal access to a quality education.

All of them and many others will be able to take these online courses and be treated to an educational experience that very few have ever had: They will be able to listen to a world-class professor, access a trove of curated resources to deepen and expand on such lectures at their fingertips, get instantaneous feedback on their assignments through built-in automated tutorial systems that adapt to their level of learning, and have access to a worldwide community of peers commiserating and discussing and debating the topics in the course.

And just think of what can be done, a la iTunes or Netflix: add closed captions in whatever language is best for you; speed up or slow down or skip around the lectures; click on similar subjects to get a deeper understanding of the issue or follow a thematic riff to see where it leads; have the system, based on your previous clicks, provide suggestions for further readings or ask you to repeat the assignment to make sure you have mastered it.

This is crazy stuff. All I offer is a twice-a-week class for 75 minutes at a time and once-a-week office hours. Sometimes my lectures are great; other times I am happy to just make it through. Sometimes, truth be told, the discussions drag. I do my best to keep students’ attention, but I have no surefire way to know if they really “got” my main points. I love what I teach, but, honestly, it’s a lot of work to lecture about the same things year after year. I am, after all, only human. I am not a machine.

Which raises the question: What do I offer that cannot be done by a MOOC? Why should students roll out of bed, get dressed, drive 10 miles through rush-hour traffic, desperately try to find a parking spot on campus and get stressed that they might walk in 10 minutes late for my 9 a.m. class?

It is certainly not for the content knowledge. Somebody out there surely knows a heck of a lot more about John Dewey or Paulo Freire than I do. And it is not for that all-too-fuzzy “human connection” of getting to know your son or daughter. Many faculty have 30 or more students in each course of the three or four or five courses they teach each semester. There is no way I’m going to truly get to know your child no matter how hard I try. And I’m not even talking about the 300- student lecture hall.

Rather, what the college classroom truly offers is an apprenticeship into thinking. I can provide my students with a conceptual map of how to think about teaching and begin to plot out where different ideas and strategies fit on that map. I can take their insights or misunderstandings and play out their limits and possibilities. I can take a current issue and begin to peel away layers to reveal particular assumptions and implications. And I can begin to teach them how to do the same thing themselves.

This is what it means to move students from novice to expert thinkers, able to apply specific knowledge, skills and protocols within a particular situation and with authentic outcomes. A MOOC can’t do that. Computer systems are still too linear and too literal, too dependent on problems having solutions and thus unable to deal with true ambiguity or nuance. A MOOC can’t go “meta” and step outside itself to reflect upon and change its own assumptions and patterns. That is ultimately why students should come to my class: to stretch their understanding of the possible, to test their assumptions and make sense of the complexity of world.

I should note that we in higher education are actually pretty bad at offering this kind of teaching. Most of what we do is based on a transmission model of education, and most of what we transmit is low-level content knowledge to help students just get the basics. This is why MOOCs have become such a sensation. If all we have experienced is being lectured at, then, sure, Wikipedia, the Khan Academy and MOOCs should replace us.

I hope, instead, that MOOCs will prompt us to refashion what we do in the college classroom and how we do it. For we all yearn for that “dynamic, charismatic” teacher who can rock our world. We want our education to matter. In the end, MOOCs may indeed transform higher education, but they cannot transform my students.

Dan W. Butin is an associate professor and founding dean of the school of education at Merrimack College and executive director of the Center for Engaged Democracy.



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