Genius Loci, Genius Loco

I was surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t have been, to receive an email this week from one of my former students who went with me on the trip to El Alamein that I recently wrote about. This student knew about the 70th anniversary of the battle, but he also reports that when he goes running in the desert, he usually thinks of that trip. People often have fond memories of school trips, and not just the lavish trips. Our trip was very modest, and thinking about it put me in mind of a South African I knew who as a boy had taken a school camping trip to the Kruger Park. In those days black South Africans were shunted off to the side in subpar accommodation, but he reported on the trip with as much pleasure as if it had happened a month before. What these stories have in common is the vividness of real physical activity with real physical people.

This vividness of actually experienced reality is also what gives an extra charge even to the “ordinary” days at school or university when people are with each other, dealing in all the give-and-take that being in a real group entails. While it is true that some highly introverted or disaffected people would rather not have such an experience, for most people it is, or should be, a welcome slice of life. Much that is valuable in academics also depends on physical proximity and face-to-face conversation. I have taken part in “webinars” and found them immediately forgettable. By contrast, I still remember particular moments around the colloquium tables of my undergraduate education, and I remember visits to professors during “office hours” and the conversations that took place then.

It is against the thought of a school as a place where actual things really happen to people who are physically present that I read about the breathless buzz surrounding MOOCs (I think it stands for Monstrously Oversubscribed Online Courses), the Wave of the Future of the Month. So far the model is that a generously endowed professor at an illustrious and well-funded university offers a free introductory course for no credit. I think it is a wonderful gesture for these teachers to give charitably of their time and thought to something popular but peripheral to the concerns of their alma mater, for such undertakings are peripheral: the students who receive credit still matriculate and pay tuition and go to classes and meet their classmates and teachers. They still form their intellects in discussions at which they are held responsible for what they say in real time by people who are right in front of them. They still receive formative evaluations at conferences where they interact one-on-one with an expert in the field: not always, and not for everything, but for enough that simple knowledge tested in summative evaluations is only a part of the experience.

Only people who are looking for short cuts to “knowledge” and certification—and the reporters and politicians gulled by them—think that MOOCs can be the Wave of the Future of education for any length of time. It is certainly possible that “schools” will form on line, but I have argued that they are schools in only a threadbare sense. It now seems possible also that people can “attend” MOOCs that won’t be troubled by inadequate bandwidth, and that rubrics can be devised which allow certain kinds of crude “crowdmarking;” but that kind of marking can only be summative, and even the fastest online type-chat is not the same as a face-to-face conversation.

These objections probably won’t stop some “schools” from adopting MOOCs in place of physical courses, but I would be willing to bet that the best universities and preparatory schools will remain actual places with actual programs involving physically present people. It’s a pity that what has started as a hobbyist offering by elite universities could end up being the fallback schooling offered by purveyors of education on the cheap—a new Bantu education but without the wild things of the Kruger Park or the deserts of El Alamein to cast back to in memory.

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