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October 01, 2013 4:04 PM Jesus Would Not Do Online Courses

By Daniel Luzer

Massive Open Online Courses, the online classes designed to be offered for free to thousands of students over the Internet, are popular among many education advocates.

But Catholic colleges should oppose them, argues King’s College theology professor Jonathan Malesic. Because they’re wrong. As he writes in a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education

But I do know that by banding together in a principled stand against producing MOOCs or offering students credit for completing them, Catholic universities can be true leaders in higher education. Instead of following the hype, they can reassert the belief that education is a moral enterprise that develops human dignity and promotes social justice.

Why? Well basically it comes down to this. MOOCs just aren’t very good.

Catholic organizations have known for a long time that to educate the poor, you have to go to them. In fact, to educate anyone fully—addressing their moral and spiritual development as well as their intellect—teachers and students must be present to each other.
The question of what makes education personal is where we see the biggest gap between MOOCs and Catholic educational principles. Coursera’s co-founder, Daphne Koller, promotes the “personalized” learning that a MOOC can offer. Coursera can track how each learner uses the course material and how his or her quiz performance correlates with given in-course behaviors. With that information, Coursera can guide students toward the activities that will best help them to learn: additional video lectures or a specific discussion-forum thread. I cannot customize each student’s education as precisely as Coursera claims it can. But I can personalize it, in the sense that I can help students connect what they learn in my class to who they are as people—their biographies, aspirations, shortcomings.

It’s a pretty interesting argument. Catholic colleges exist to do good in the world. We have Catholic colleges in America to educate and improve students. There’s no reason such schools should be particularly concerned about efficiency of delivery, which is the primary benefit of online courses.

While this is a compelling point it’s unlikely to impact policy. Certainly few independent religious observers have indicated that online colleges are any particular moral problem. Indeed, schools like the evangelical Liberty University have enthusiastically embraced online education. Almost 90 percent of Liberty students study online only. There’s not, apparently, much worry there about making sure the students are physically around to address “their moral and spiritual development as well as their intellect.”

There is no specific Catholic or Christian prohibition against online education, but Malesic does have a point about how online is getting pretty far away from the principles that led Catholic leaders to create colleges in the first place.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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