MOOCs and Mirror Neurons
By Dan O'Hara, Professor of English and Inaugural Mellon Term Professor of the Humanities
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are all the rage in higher education these days. The idea behind them is simple: to deliver to the greatest number of students, including non-traditional off-campus students, the knowledge they want as presented by a leading figure in a field. Sebastian Thrun, a research professor in computer science, artificial intelligence, and robotics at Stanford, a Google Fellow, and the co-founder of Udacity (a company developing and promoting MOOCS), gave one such course recently to more than 50, 000 Indian computer and engineering students from his base at Stanford.
However, Udacity is not only a commercial venture, at least as Thrun sees it, as his webpage makes clear, “At Udacity, we are trying to democratize higher education. Udacity stands for ‘we are audacious, for you, the student.’ This is an audacious step, and it has been a thrill ride ” Although born and raised in Germany, Thrun expresses here the American Dream as if he were an Emerson or a Henry Ford. In 2011, he gave up tenure, and became a part-time professor, so that he could devote himself even more to Udacity and its mission.
My concern about MOOCS is precisely that, with the best intentions in the world, including making money (I have nothing against it, only wish I could have made more), the drive to democratize higher education, in this latest form, will not stop long enough to conduct, analyze, and reflect on studies of what this new pedagogy is achieving, and at what cost, perhaps, in terms other than those of the bottom-line mind-set.
Not to play the role of the old fogy too well, but when I began teaching at Temple, in the 1970s, the idea was, as far as possible, to bring to mostly first-time university students the riches of higher education and those riches' best modes of delivery, their accompanying pedagogies, that the elites solely possessed for ages. Ideally, of course, this would mean most courses would be small seminars, conducted in the Socratic style, by a would-be Plato of our time. Naturally, that idealization, like all such youthful dreams, was not quite to be realized, but generally speaking at Temple, in the humanities at least, smaller courses have been the rule until recently. Why are such small classes, historically speaking, always the ideal?
I think the answer has to do with the physical presence of the teacher and that presence’s range of emotional effectiveness. Charisma would be but an extreme instance of what I mean here. For what makes me think so is the work of Giacomo Rizzolatti, noted discoverer of mirror-neurons in the brain that fire in sympathetic response to witnessing the behavior of others. Rizzolatti, and by now many other researchers, have established that mirror-neurons function most intensely, and with the most long-lasting, even brain-reshaping consequences, when the behavior witnessed is physically present. (See Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia, Mirrors In The Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions and Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
So what would MOOCs do with this complex of knowledge and feeling constituting “intellectual conscience,” that new “self” derived from tradition, as practiced in small groups by the best teachers and added to our psychic apparatus? It seems to me they would dispense with it almost casually, without a second thought, and in the name of a good end, further “democratization” of higher education.
It may be that financial expediency once again will trump all idealizations and good intentions, but if so, not only will higher education be able to cut thousands of non-tenure track faculty in the future, rather than resolving the complex dilemma such faculty underscore, and perhaps tenure-track faculty, too, along with their entire departments to be replaced by an array of MOOCs, but also in terms of the history of intellectual conscience, higher ed may just be cutting its own throat. •