Making peace with MOOCs

Each week, Symposium’s blog highlights comments about the week’s featured article. This week’s piece is “Why Write the History of Capitalism?

Prof. Louis Hyman, guest blogger

This coming year, Cornell University will be releasing four massive open on-line courses (MOOCs), one of which will be on the History of Capitalism. Supporters of MOOCs say they promise a utopian vision of global education, while detractors warn they will destroy the university as we know it.

Who knows? What we have been thinking a lot about here is how to compare MOOCs with other kinds of online businesses. The model I have been thinking most about is a bit counterintuitive, since it less about education and more about fun: on-line gaming.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks of higher education is evaluation. How do we assess the relative skill of students? Games are the best way — as long as the game is about historical knowledge and interpretation rather than button mashing. One feature of on-line games that we are thinking about is “clans,” or the teams that people create for themselves to compete. Calling these groups clans is a bit silly, but when you think about another business innovation, microcredit, then it begins to make sense. Microcredit relies on making small groups of borrowers responsible for one another’s debts. While neo-liberals might celebrate the individual, humans identify more with groups, and group norms can enforce an individual’s behaviour, whether for microcredit, World of Warcraft, or learning the history of capitalism.

Trying to recreate a traditional lecture hall in cyberspace is a fool’s errand, but luckily we have other models that can guide our new ways of learning. These will complement the university, not replace it — just as online gaming and traditional games continue to coexist.

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