MOOCluhan: Using McLuhan to Understand MOOCs
“Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” — Marshall McLuhan
When I first heard this famous quote from McLuhan, I was insulted. Surely, McLuhan must not appreciate high-quality education, that he considers it no better than mass-market education! Now, I have a better appreciation for what that quote is saying, and I realize that what he’s saying is deep and important, and relates to what MOOCs are missing.
The student population on my campus is mostly low-income, working part-time or full-time, first-generation college students, nearly all from groups underrepresented in the sciences. These are, by definition, disadvantaged students. This isn’t an insult, just a fact – the deck is stacked against them based on their background. They have a competitive disadvantage against those with more resources and against those with a pedigree that creates access to fancier opportunities.
This year, a few undergraduates who have worked with me are heading off to great graduate programs. What all of them have in common is that they started working with faculty at my university in the classroom and in the lab, in person. They’ve all told me and my colleagues that there’s no way they would have been able to do what they’ve done without us as a resource and as an influence. I take them at their word.
I added the emphasis above. The author of the above blog post is working with students who are working against odds to succeed in higher education. I’m sure that the author is right — the face-to-face involvement of teachers who care about the students is exactly what it takes for those students to succeed. What is it that can be provided 1:1 that MOOCS at 1:10000 are unlikely to provide? I suggest: Engagement, immersion, transcendence.
The best entertainment has that quality. You’re watching a play, and you forget that you’re in a theater at all. You’re somewhere else, totally engaged in the moment of the story. You can get the same thing from reading a book, and when it’s really good, from a movie or television show. In any case, high-quality entertainment takes you away from the world where maybe the deck is stacked against you and creates a new reality.
I have had educational experiences like that, and I hope that I have (occasionally) provided them to my students. I know that I have had to chase students out of class, because they were totally absorbed in the activities and problems and constructions of class. That’s engagement.
I’ve read a lot of articles and blog posts about MOOCs. So far, I’ve never yet read the line, “The MOOC was so engaging. I was immersed in it. I was no longer staring at my laptop screen, I was…” In a lecture hall with 300 people at Stanford, maybe? I’ve heard people talk about how much work MOOCs are, how it requires extreme motivation and resilience to complete. That doesn’t sound like engagement, immersion, or transcendence.
Absolutely, there is entertainment that requires real work. There is wonderful literature that is “hard fun” to dig into and understand. That’s exactly where McLuhan comes in. That wonderful literature is only accessible to a few. MOOCs only work (right now) for the few. To get the mass student audience, to educate everyone, we have to think more like mass entertainment and work at engagement and immersion.