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.