Shock Find: People don't like to be isolated.
This, essentially, is what the Wall Street Journal reports today in an article summarizing the pros and cons of MOOCs -- the "massive open online courses" pioneered by companies like Coursera and edX and now increasingly offered at mainstream American universities, including Harvard, MIT and Stanford.
In "An Early Report Card on MOOCs," the WSJ's Geoffrey A. Fowler writes that of "a number of problems" with MOOCs, perhaps most pressing is this: "Staring at a screen makes some students feel isolated and disengaged, which can lead to poor performance or dropping out altogether." According to the article, more than 90% of people who sign up for a MOOC don't finish the course."
MOOCs are not bad. Online venues can be crucial alternatives for those who cannot attend or afford a traditional campus. I admire anyone who strives to advance his or her education, and many do so within daunting circumstances. MOOCs rightly invite those of us in private schools with high tuition rates to look for ways to democratize learning, to make it more available for those who hunger for knowledge and need it.
But the struggles with MOOCs do raise a larger point: whether online courses and e-based pedagogy should be treated as equal alternatives to a classic classroom or campus environment.
I don't believe they should be, and the reason begins with a truth nicely captured in Gaudium et Spes: "For by their innermost nature men and women are social beings; and if they do not enter into relationships with others they can neither live nor develop their gifts" (para. 12). This social nature should, and will, continue to draw people back to campuses, back into community. There is no substitute for an immediate give-and-take, for the chance to see blank faces and quizzical looks and the enthusiasms of an "aha" moment. A non-virtual classroom allows immediate feedback and possibilities for activities and discussions that aren't available through satellites and screens.
Moreover, as humans, and especially as Catholics, we know the importance of physical space. Where we learn can be just as important as what we learn; even more, the former can influence the latter. I could have studied law online or in a plain urban area, but I would have missed out on something that became essential to me as a lawyer and educator, and most fundamentally as a person seeking truth. Studying law on the gorgeous inspiring grounds of Notre Dame shaped my heart and soul. When I walked across South Quad, past Mary and the Golden Dome, I sensed the ultimate horizon of my learning, that I was participating in something much more significant than ensuring a nice career. When I walked out of the law school and heard the bells from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart tolling for a funeral, I felt the urgency of human frailty and the gift of every breath. When I walked by the bust of St. Thomas More and into the regal space of the law library, I never failed to register what More's example had to mean for me. Soul transcends career. Faith trumps security. "God alone is good."
The visuals -- the sacramentals -- ennobled and inspired. Praying in the same space where I learned about Civil Procedure and Constitutional Law allowed for concrete involvement in the harmony of faith and reason. Watching my professors -- top scholars in their fields -- attend daily Mass and humbly take the Eucharist strengthened and animated my own religious commitment. If they had faith, how couldn't I?
My education, in other words, was not confined to books and exams; it was the entire experience that unfolded on campus, during class and out of class, at morning and at night, and especially on Sundays when I walked into the Basilica and smelled the incense and heard the choir and felt the glory of the Resurrection.
In other words, there was a totality to my Catholic education, or a comprehensiveness, that a MOOC could never provide, and it is that whole-person approach on which educators, especially Catholic ones, must continue to insist.