Recently the Star Tribune reprinted two versions of an article from the Economist: “In higher ed, the revolution has only begun” (June 29) and “Higher education and creative destruction” (June 30). Both articles advocated a “creative destruction” of the “old model” of college — “Aristotle [and] young students … gather[ing] to listen to the wisdom of scholars” — and getting rid of tenured professors in favor of cost-saving recorded lectures by online superstar teachers. However, exposure of the half-truths in these articles suggests otherwise.

Curiously, after describing the lecture as a candidate for destruction, the Economist then offers its alternative — MOOCs, or massive open online courses — which really are just a magnified, distance-learning method of lecturing. In MOOCs, superstar lecturers from schools like Harvard and Yale give one-size-fits-all online lectures to as many as 100,000 students.

However, as experts — and now also the new documentary film “Ivory Tower” — explain, MOOCs work poorly because most MOOC students audit for no credit, most drop out and only a few percent receive a passing grade for credit. And while the top 10 percent of students may find MOOCs useful, the other 90 percent usually prefer engagement with a live professor and classmates and with technology in their discipline. If MOOCs do work, they will likely play a small but useful role in regular classrooms as an assignment, much like an online textbook or video.

The real “new model” of college learning began with Socrates. It includes personal experiences in technology-saturated classrooms — traditional or online. In them, professors interact ever more closely with students. Classes may include discussion, questioning, individual work in class with a professor helping, labs in science and technology, applied practice for technical and professional fields, internships, and other applied modes. Online classes can be effective, especially as a student advances in a discipline. However, those of us who have taught online for a decade know that excellent online learning requires the same small, interactive experiences as in traditional classrooms.

In addition, registrations for online classes have slowed considerably in the past several years, suggesting that the majority of students at typical colleges and universities will continue to learn best in face-to-face learning.

MOOCs may also be subtly classist. Superstar lecturers typically have honed their skills teaching the top 5 percent of young students, who often spent their privileged youth learning the background and assumptions of the educated elite. Superstar lecturers also are often relatively less likely to connect with students from poor communities, immigrant families and non-mainstream cultural groups.

Students with these backgrounds often place a much higher value on real engagement and discussion in small groups or one on one. The same is true of older students returning for training in a new field — as much as a third or more of some student bodies.

We need all of these Americans to be engaged in effective college experiences. In the 1800s, high school was for the privileged few. The United States then invested in high school for everyone. As a result, by 1950, America experienced a nearly unprecedented expansion of knowledge, economic growth and democratic citizenship. In 1945, college was still mostly for the elite. Now almost half of younger people have experienced college at some level. To remain one of the top countries in the world, we need to invest in the new interactive model of college teaching.


Richard Jewell is co-founder and general coordinator of MnWE (Minnesota Writing and English), a consortium of professors from the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and private colleges. He is a professor at Inver Hills Community College. Ann Ludlow is a professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.