Our Best Educational Technologies Are Just Spiffy Email

MOOCs are new, but they don't represent a significant break with the educational software we have had for years.
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A “beet”-nik professor lectures to Harvard students, presumably on poetry. (Captain Pandapants/Flickr)

Talk to the advocates of online courses like MOOCs and you’ll hear a familiar appeal: This is only the beginning. I heard it earlier this month, when I sat down with Anant Argarwal, the president of EdX. EdX is a MOOC-making non-profit, the result of a partnership between MIT and Harvard.

“Where do you see MOOCs going?” I asked him. I alluded to how current MOOCs, with their brief video modules and sequential approach, might not be best for things like humanities classes. His answer was revealing, and it’s worth quoting in full:

I think first of all the thing I want to point out is: This is Version 1. You are too young to have used email in 1982—you were probably not born in 1982 [Ed. note: This is correct; I was probably not born in 1982.]—but I used email in 1982. And I use email today, 30 years later. It’s a transformed experience. It’s completely different. And it took 30 years to get to where we are.

Education has been going on for hundreds of years and online technologies—people have been working with online technologies for, I would say, 30 years. However, intense experimentation and excitement [around education] has happened only in the past year or year-and-a-half. So this is Version 1. 

Wait ’til you see Version 6.

So I think it’s too early to say that, “this doesn’t work,” or you know, something doesn’t work.

He went on to cite the “1.3 million students from every single country in the world” who have taken EdX classes. (Though that number, he clarified when asked, describes how many people signed up for classes. Only about 7 percent of students finish an EdX class.)

Perhaps what Argarwal says about this period of MOOC development is true. MOOCs and their on-campus companions, flipped classrooms, might truly shift how some kinds of classes are taught. (That doesn’t mean they’ll make them any cheaper: Argarwal didn’t think it wise to muse about whether MOOCs would lower the cost of education. “The jury’s out on that,” he told me.) 

But it is folly, I think, to speak about email—or the suite of information technologies generally that we associate with the web—as if it isn’t an educational technology.

Over at his blog Text Patterns, occassional-Atlantic contributor and Baylor humanities professor Alan Jacobs examines a new MOOC about poetry, offered by Harvard. EdX will host the course on its main website, EdX.org.

So what’s this course going to be like?” Jacobs writes:

Well, “The course is broken down into modules.” Right: modules. “The course combines interactivity, video, traveling, and an element of surprise, said New.” The “traveling” seems to be done by [the professor, Elisa New]: 

“We filmed here at Harvard, in Cambridge, on Cape Cod,” she said. “I’ll be filming in Washington, D.C., Manhattan, California, even Vermont to talk about [Robert] Frost.”

Also, New filmed Michael Pollan reading a poem about corn.

As Jacobs writes in a later paragraph:

It’s impossible to discover either from the article I’ve been quoting or from HarvardX’s page about the course what any of this means: interactivity, traveling, huddling, conversation, “drawing in teachers and students in a variety of ways.”

And then, crucially,

Now, advocates for MOOCs might say that this is but an experiment, an early essay in the craft. But with some poetry websites and an email listserv I could create something more educationally interesting and ambitious than this, though the entertaining spectacle of Michael Pollan reading a poem about corn would, sadly, be lacking. With Harvard’s resources, this is what they come up with?

Argarwal’s defense, which I cited above, is so common among fans of MOOCs. “We’re at the very beginning! The best is yet to come!” And the metaphor holds, somewhat: Just as people have written letters to each others for millennia, people have taught each other about the world, too. Interfaces determine the capabilities and potential of online spaces, and experimenting with interfaces takes time. We know that the kind of emails we send changes based on the interface we use to send them: Gmail’s conversation view, for example, encourages keeping an entire email chat in a single thread.

But learning isn’t limited to a MOOC interface. Jacobs’s words (emphasis mine) makes this point so well. Learning happens every day on the web, in all sorts of interfaces. It happens in email, Twitter, even much-maligned Reddit. What’s more, truly learning, I think, happens much more in those places, in places where one types, than on YouTube or in a MOOC course module, where one watches. Learning is more than accumulating knowledge: It’s charting a way through it, finding its leaks and limitations. 

Jacobs’s point is this: We have had educational software for nearly as long as we have had any software at all. We use it everyday. Instead of seeing MOOCs as a break with 30 years of history, we might imagine them as another iteration in a process of innovation decades long.

And that means the average MOOC has to encourage the student toward something that a publicly-accessible email list can’t.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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