Let's Make 2013 the Year of the Seminar

Keith Negley for The Chronicle

April 29, 2013

The past year has seen the meteoric rise of the MOOC, or massive open online course, which lets 100,000 strangers—or more—log on to free classes branded "Stanford" or "Harvard." The New York Times went so far as to call 2012 the "Year of the MOOC." Amid the cacophony of voices calling for colleges to cut costs and reduce student debt, many of us who work in higher education find ourselves playing defense on an issue we don't yet know enough about.

I believe we have a collective responsibility to challenge the notion that MOOCs are the future of American higher education. If we really want to make a difference for most students, let's make 2013 "The Year of the Seminar."

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for making taped lectures, academic chat rooms, and technical training available online, as well as offering Web-based information to learners in the developing world who are fortunate enough to have broadband access. MOOCs can do those things well. But when we look at how seminars shape and sharpen the mind, it becomes clear that American students need more small, rigorous classes—lots more. Here's why:

First, seminars help college students develop a set of higher-order intellectual capabilities that literally rewire the brain. Students must read complex texts closely and answer nuanced questions posed by professors. They must listen actively, reflect critically, form their own positions, and share ideas with peers. They must write papers that support original arguments with evidence and then respond to detailed faculty critiques of their work. Often they must synthesize diverse types of knowledge—quantitative, qualitative, theoretical, experiential, interpretive, and aesthetic.

All this is called learning how to think. While MOOCs trumpet their ability to deliver digestible content "at scale," in the digital era, with good and bad information proliferating wildly, seminars help students develop the discerning intellect needed to cut through the clutter.

And then there's the profound role of the professor. No MOOC can give young minds the in-person experience of working directly with older experts to create, deepen, and connect ideas. Research from the University of California at Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education and many other studies have shown that students grow from directly engaging with scholars and witnessing how they think. Seminars allow students to absorb their professors' methods and moves, their certainties and doubts, their efforts to factor out bias and place new concepts within landscapes of the known. This is how colleges kindle the next generation of free and creative minds.

Moreover, in terms of holistic development, students on the cusp of adulthood grow far more from being engaged and valued by a professor they respect than from being lectured to as an anonymous mass and then graded by digital assessment tools. This is obvious, but we've forgotten it. And the greatest teachers can serve for decades as responsive mentors and touchstones of integrity—but only if students first get to know them authentically, face to face and mind to mind.

There's also the fact that, unlike MOOCs, seminars create direct, interactive experiences of citizenship and community. Probing class discussions—the kind that require students to look one another in the eye, connect authentically, and build trust as the semester progresses—show the young that humans view the world in myriad ways. They teach students both to invite one another's contributions and to disagree constructively. When students occasionally say the wrong thing, or must engage their peers when defending an unpopular notion, they learn firsthand why democracies prize and protect freedom of speech.

In these ways, each seminar develops its own personality, a searching spirit of "we" that crosses the supposed divides of background and identity and can be joyful in itself. Take as an example the seminar "Water, Life, and Society" taught at my institution, Franklin & Marshall College, by Dorothy Merritts, a professor of geoscience. Students move seamlessly from lectures to hands-on work with global-water databases to discussion, and team up to do research and present case studies that elucidate major international water conflicts. Through this intense interaction, they learn how to analyze the complex causes and potential solutions of critical water issues—intellectual skills that will serve them well long beyond graduation.

MOOC providers argue that they create virtual learning communities that connect people from around the world in ways that a physical classroom does not. This is true only if we greatly diminish the meaning of the words "learning," "community," and "connect." And pioneering thinkers like Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget, vividly illustrate the further risks of investing too much meaning in these ersatz "communities," which are often constructed not for their users, but rather as "bait ... to lure hypothetical advertisers."

Some might say, "Quaint, but we can no longer afford such labor-intensive, 'inefficient' college classes." That's exactly backwards. There's a huge return for students and society if we can enroll more undergraduates in more seminars—even at, yes, more cost.

That's because seminars enhance one another. By taking several at once and many over a college career, students experience the disparate ways that scholars define, transfer, and assess knowledge. This can lead students to the revolutionary insight that all knowledge is created and constructed, and thus that they can become creators, too.

In today's knowledge-based societies, where so much change is driven by competition, technology, and science, people who can create new ideas or new intellectual paradigms will always be leaders. A country that cannot produce such leaders of thought will not lead.

MOOCs, like the Internet itself, offer real value in providing access to certain kinds of information, but those who see MOOCs as the quick and easy solution to the national imperative of educating more students and producing great thinkers and entrepreneurs will find only fool's gold. It will be a shame and a disservice to students if institutions begin basing a college education predominantly on MOOCs or other massive lecture courses.

Finally, for those who see MOOCs as the future of American higher education, ask yourselves how the people we educate today will deal with complex issues in the workplace of tomorrow. Imagine a team of national-security leaders in 2025 analyzing whether promoting economic development would prevent terrorism. Imagine government officials, public-health experts, anthropologists, and economists searching together for the solution to a border-crossing disease. All taking account of multiple views. All trying to interpret data. All working at the mind's limits.

The vital work that takes place in such a scenario is the real-world form of the seminar—still one of the best models for developing the mind that has emerged in four centuries of American higher education.

Let's see the MOOCs top that.

Daniel R. Porterfield is president of Franklin & Marshall College.