The Opposite of MOOC

MOOC seems to have swept us up in its wave. Dazed, many of us don’t know which way to turn. To put MOOC in perspective, let me describe a program that sails against this tide.

This week I joined an innovative enterprise at my institution, Ohio State, that, unlike MOOC, seeks to minimize the distance between faculty member and student. Known as STEP, “Second Year Transformational Experience Program,” its aim is to keep sophomores at the university.

Like many big public institutions, Ohio State, with an enrollment of about 56,000, can be bewildering to young people. Classes in the first year and unfortunately in the years following can be inhumanely huge. And the sophomore year is the weak link in a student’s undergraduate career.

For instance, when previous sophomores were asked what they mostly missed in their freshman year, their number one complaint was lack of contact with their professors. Indeed, it is not unusual for sophomores, indeed for juniors, not to know a professor well enough to ask her for a letter of recommendation.

STEP was launched in the third week of August of this year with these hurdles in mind. A thousand sophomores living on campus have been divided into Houses of 100. Each House is broken down into Cohorts of 20 students, which are headed by a faculty member. My House has six colleagues representing Art, English, Engineering, Chemistry, Classics, and Journalism.

In the first semester we meet either in our Houses, as a large group, or in our smaller cohorts, to get to know each other and discuss the six objectives of STEP: Study Abroad, Internships, Undergraduate Research, Service Learning and Community Service, Leadership, Artistic and Creative Endeavors. While the aim is to consider the six categories, the overall purpose is to establish links among the students and between students and their teachers.

The six themes are designed to help the students think about the academic program they will undertake either in the summer of 2014 or during their junior year. Students receive $2,000.00 for their academic project. (Every faculty member is given $5,000.00 to cover social expenses—snacks, dinners, lunches, special activities—and as an honorarium.)

So for one of my sessions I have invited some former students who have done research abroad or studied in other countries. For another meeting, “Social Justice,” alumni will describe their work with anti-sweats-shop unions or environmental organizations.

There are many possible projects for students to design. One may wish to do an internship at the Smithsonian Institution. Another may work on a documentary film. If others wish to volunteer with a labor union in El Salvador or a nature preserve in Kenya they may use their award for that purpose. Students may invest the money in learning Chinese or taking courses overseas. (Those going overseas may need to apply for additional financial aid.)

In the second semester faculty members help students draft their individual projects.

In a way, STEP levels the field for students of public universities, making it possible for them to participate in unpaid internships and service projects that they would otherwise not be able to afford.

So does STEP cancel MOOC? No. But neither will MOOC kill the traditional classroom. While MOOC understandably captures the headlines, the tiny STEPs of the world do not. And yet this says so much about the give-and-take between the universal and the local that has characterized human history. For every MOOC that seeks to bind millions of people in an digital community, there will be students clamoring for a coffee with their professor or to form a service group to fight hunger in their community.

It is because of this dialectic between the global and the individual that I for one—and you may accuse me of arrogance or ignorance – don’t believe that the university will be swamped by the waves of MOOC beamed from the sky. For this reason also nations will continue to exist in the era of our globalization. Let’s bear in mind that many states today are the results of struggles against global empires. And nationalist conflicts in Europe emerged in the early nineteenth century partly as a response to Napoleon’s attempt to impose the universal message of the French revolution upon everyone else. So the transnational and national co-exist, each feeding off one another. You can do STEP and MOOC in the same semester. Contradictory phenomena can coexist in our lives.

Moreover, new technologies don’t always crush their precursors. When television was introduced, people feared it would destroy radio. Yet in the age of Twitter we still listen to radio. In the same way, artists continued to paint after the introduction of photography. For every huge MOOC there will be a small STEP but you just won’t hear about the latter.

All this seems to give credence to the profundity of that old cliché: the more things change ….

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