The Moral Case For MOOCs

There’s a problem with how our society evaluates computer-based education. It’s not that there’s something inherently wrong with that pushback against American colleges that have chosen to embrace technology. Those who fear the consequences of an increasingly technological higher education system are free to voice their opinion. The problem is that the question of “What does this mean for American colleges?” is the wrong way to frame the debate. Ultimately, MOOCs and similar innovations are not about the American higher education system. They’re about the rest of the world.

The world’s optimists constantly talk about the future contributions of the billions who now live in poverty. Tom Friedman has written 47 columns about them. Unfortunately, the U.S. can’t do a whole lot to solve the problems faced by children in a poor Indian village. The U.S. can’t even do a much to solve their education problems. But one thing we can do is push the innovation of open, free, and high-functioning online education systems so that whenever these kids get internet  access, whether it’s in 2013, 2014, or 2019, they will have the means to educate themselves.

The American education system is irrelevant to this development. Not unaffected, but irrelevant. Yes, online education will have an impact on American universities. And there is a legitimate case to be made that we should be wary and skeptical of change. But online education is for the rest of the world, and our relatively petty concerns about marginally lowering the quality of learning at elite universities should not be a roadblock to the development and advancement of online learning systems. The positive externalities from successful trial and error are too great. Instead of giving MOOCs only two strikes, we should be giving them four strikes.

Again, none of this is to say that we shouldn’t be careful about the changes we make to our higher education system. But a lot of the pushback against MOOCs is disconnected from any specific initiative — there’s merely an abstract concern that MOOCs are a negative development for all involved. In reality, MOOCs are sure to be a positive development for 98% of the world regardless of their effect on American universities. Until there is actual evidence of widespread negative consequences as a result of MOOCs, critics should tone down their outrage and allow as much experimentation as possible.


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