MOOCs, Deschooling, and the Idea of the University

Two blunt positions have emerged on online education and MOOCs. Techno-utopians (along with more modest techno-optimists) see these developments as an unprecedented opportunity for the masses to learn from the world’s best minds. Techno-dystopians (and less alarmist techno-pessimists) see on-line learning and technology as cynical, cost-cutting measures to disempower faculty, to further reduce learning to administrative and market forces, and to sterilize learning. An unlikely pair of authors, radical educator and deschooler Ivan Illich and “small-c” conservative political theorist Michael Oakeshott help us navigate the promises and perils of educational technology.
Ivan Illich, schooling (which he opposed to education) as enforcing social controls, molding people to rigid roles, and systematically confusing learning with conformity and certification. He saw institutionalized schools as funnels ushering people into stultifying habits. The ubiquity of formal schooling caused many children to lose their capacity for independent reasoning. If learning occurred within school walls, it was only because children were confined to schools most of the week. As a remedy, he advocated for educational webs to foster individual autonomy and free associations. 
Illich made an important distinction between skills and education and speculated on how technology could serve both. Skills can be taught, largely through drilling. The process of becoming educated is much more amorphous and difficult to institutionalize since the educated person must learn to apprehend unknown unknowns. Education should help us not only to answer questions, but also how to formulate the right ones. No algorithm allows us to do this.
Over four decades ago Ivan Illich anticipated the potential of computers for learning. Illich called for research on how technology could provide education free from the control of technocrats and proposed (in 1971!) a database where people could connect with like-minded individuals to discuss a book, a song, or a work of art. Illich shared the techno-utopian confidence in people’s intrinsic motivation and capacity to learn outside of institutional settings. He would have feared attempts to institutionalize technological advances or to see them as panacea to our current educational malaise.
Michael Oakeshott’s vision in the Idea of a University helps us see why universities should be wary of MOOCs and other online technologies. Oakeshott understood the university as a manner of human activity defined not by specific goals, but by practices of scholarship, teaching, and learning. What the university provides is schole – leisure, understood as freedom from necessity. He saw the university as providing a gift of an interval, a period to reflect, to imagine, and to converse freed from the exigencies of work, family, and the rest of life. To preserve this schole, Oakeshott warned that the university must guard against the patronage of the world and honor the practices that give the institution its purpose.
Oakeshott’s vision of the university was probably never viable and is unlikely to be socially, politically, or financially tenable in today’s increasingly administratively and economically regimented world. Today’s university is a fragmented institution that does many things – research, vocational training, and remedial education. Nonetheless, Oakeshott captures a vital, though elusive, aspect of the university that today’s politicians and administrators often ignore and that faculty should not surrender: the university should not be defined in terms of a set of goals, but rather through the intellectual activities of members.
How do the thoughts of Illich and Oakeshott relate to MOOCs and online education? First, technology should be used in cases where people are being trained for a skill. We shouldn’t lament the replacement of lectures when skills are better acquired through drilling or by watching a video. If online lessons and Big Data can help us do this better, we should do so. Sugata Mitra (whose experiments with technology owe something to Illich) rightly cites Arthur C. Clarke: any teacher who can be replaced by a computer should be.
Second, MOOCs should be left, for the most part, outside of the university. They are a tool that may help people – including people enrolled in the university – in the process of becoming educated. But we cannot replace the practices that embody the university which are defined by what Oakeshott called the scholar, the scholar-teacher, and the student. The university offers students, perhaps for the last time in their lives, the gift of an interval where they are invited to reflect in leisure with their teachers and their peers. To eliminate this gift is to abandon the university altogether. We should not allow online learning to encroach on these relationships.
Finally, education occurs in the university in large part because it permits spaces of anarchy – spaces without hierarchically imposed rules where conversation in search of knowledge and wisdom replaces the bureaucracies that govern so much of our lives. The university is a space where education – genuine education, not schooling – occurs through the design of spaces and opportunities for happy accidents. Students find mentors, stumble upon texts, and meet together in conversation. Insofar as online learning and MOOCs impose structure that destroys these spaces, they must be resisted.

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