How optimistic faculty members are about the educational value of MOOCs seems to turn largely on what they think of as the status quo classroom experience. Colleagues at elite institutions, especially small liberal arts colleges, are generally skeptical, because they think of what they do in their classrooms as being very intellectually alive, and cannot see how that could be replicated online. But most of the credit hours at my institution are not taught in small, intellectually lively, classes. My own department keeps our classes small for majors, and offers very few classes larger than 100 students—still, I am pretty sure that in any given semester most of our credit hours are taken in rooms with 50 or more students. I know of one social science department which offers no classes with fewer than 70 students, even for majors, and many departments in which lectures with 300 or more students are commonplace. It is easy to see how MOOCs could replace such classes.
What seems irreplaceable is the small, discussion-heavy, course. What do students learn in those courses? Not information, but skills—especially skills like being able to articulate ideas, and reason, in public. This excellent piece by Jennifer Morton at the Chronicle notes how much more valuable small classes can be for lower-income, or first generation, students:
For students from low-income families who manage to overcome the tough odds, college is the first place where they will be asked to defend a position and to engage in vigorous intellectual debate. It is also likely to be the first place where they have to consistently engage with middle-class students and professors and navigate middle-class social norms.
The differences in these social skills can be quite subtle, such as variations in when and how to make eye contact, or how deferential to be when speaking to authority figures. But their impact can be significant. And because children growing up in poverty in the United States are more likely to grow up around and go to school with other poor children, they have fewer opportunities to interact with the middle class and “pick up” the social skills valued by the middle class—and middle-class employers.
A SLAC dean recently told me about the debate at her (well known highly selective) college in which the faculty overwhelmingly decided not only not to offer, but to allow no transfer credit for, MOOCs. But most of the students at said college are not in need of learning the skills Morton is committed to imparting: the students who most need classroom experiences that foster these skills are in institutions which are under pressure to produce and give credit for MOOCs.
And, as she also says, making classes small is not enough. Administrators have to manage the budget as best they can to ensure that class sizes are small (and MOOCs etc can help with this, by freeing up faculty who would otherwise be lecturing in large halls to teach smaller classes), but faculty, too, have responsibilities:
our priority should be to offer students, in particular those who are not already part of the middle class, a classroom in which they can learn to navigate middle-class social norms, be comfortable with and develop relationships with students from different backgrounds, and speak their minds. The onus here is not just on the administration to lower class size, but also on college professors to foster the kind of classroom in which students can develop those elusive practical skills.
Anyway, read the whole thing.
 Note that I say seems. I’ve already been surprised by the ways that online elements can enhance smaller classes, especially for students who already have a fair amount of experience in the classroom. So, I’m generally ready to be surprised. I just don’t see how online interactions can effectively replace embodied interactions when it comes to learning and developing the skills Morton is concerned with.