A Catholic Case Against MOOCs

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

September 16, 2013

An odd fact of MOOC mania is that it has barely touched one prominent sector of higher education: the nearly 250 Roman Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. So far, only Georgetown University has forged a partnership with one of the three major companies offering platforms for massive open online courses—Coursera, edX, and Udacity.

I don't know why there aren't more Catholic MOOCs. Many Catholic universities are just as prestigious as other colleges offering the online courses. Moreover, Catholic universities presumably want the same things that their secular counterparts hope that MOOCs can provide: greater brand recognition, a showcase for innovative faculty, and the chance to recruit from a bigger pool of students.

But I do know that by banding together in a principled stand against producing MOOCs or offering students credit for completing them, Catholic universities can be true leaders in higher education. Instead of following the hype, they can reassert the belief that education is a moral enterprise that develops human dignity and promotes social justice.

MOOCs not only fail to accomplish those goals; they undermine them. And if large Catholic universities pursued strategic aims through MOOCs, they could end up pushing smaller Catholic colleges, including ones sponsored by the same religious orders, out of business, weakening Catholic higher education as a whole.

There is one way in which MOOCs seem to line up with a major historical goal of Catholic universities: They offer access to college-level instruction for people who have been excluded because of poverty, remoteness, or others' prejudice. But the altruistic promise of MOOCs has been empty so far.

Most people taking MOOCs already have degrees; they are not in desperate need of education. And while many of the students do come from developing countries, there is evidence that they are not being well served by MOOCs. For example, more than half of those who completed a recent course in computational investing, offered by Georgia Tech through Coursera, came from first-world countries.

Catholic organizations have known for a long time that to educate the poor, you have to go to them. In fact, to educate anyone fully—addressing their moral and spiritual development as well as their intellect—teachers and students must be present to each other.

The question of what makes education personal is where we see the biggest gap between MOOCs and Catholic educational principles. Coursera's co-founder, Daphne Koller, promotes the "personalized" learning that a MOOC can offer. Coursera can track how each learner uses the course material and how his or her quiz performance correlates with given in-course behaviors. With that information, Coursera can guide students toward the activities that will best help them to learn: additional video lectures or a specific discussion-forum thread. I cannot customize each student's education as precisely as Coursera claims it can. But I can personalize it, in the sense that I can help students connect what they learn in my class to who they are as people—their biographies, aspirations, shortcomings.

MOOC creators assume that learners' intellects are detachable from their broader life circumstances. You take the MOOC, but you're on your own in figuring out how your learning fits into the rest of your life—or how it might require changing your life. That's fine if you just need to know about analog circuits to work on a specific project. But people come to universities at all ages, with unsettled identities and life plans, or with plans that education itself will unsettle. Moral education, which Catholic institutions promise (and secular ones, too, should offer), relies on dialogue and physical proximity. Students therefore need accessible mentors on the faculty as well as counselors, advisers, and chaplains.

By forswearing the production and consumption of MOOCs, Catholic colleges would also show that social justice entails not replacing human labor (here, faculty) with cheaper, less effective machine labor. When members of the philosophy department at San Jose State University wrote an open letter to the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel stating why they would not give students credit for taking the MOOC he teaches, they appealed to principles of social justice—principles that, ironically, Sandel teaches in his edX course, "JusticeX." MOOCs, the department argued, exacerbated racial and class divisions in higher education, offering inferior goods to poor and minority students.

The grounds for a social-justice case against MOOCs are even stronger within the Catholic tradition. In his 1981 encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that technology can aid our work, but he also warned that it can become an "enemy" by displacing workers and robbing work of its rightful meaning. The threat is that technology will depersonalize both the work and the worker, who is, the pope argued, "the primary basis of the value of work."

MOOCs undercut that value for academic workers. As the historian Jonathan Rees has argued convincingly on his blog, the endgame for MOOCs is the supplanting of local, in-person labor by technologically mediated remote labor. The human educator, who is the source of education's greatest value but also its greatest expense, is meant to become dispensable. As colleges encounter trouble balancing their books (as many small Catholic colleges are), they will be tempted to grant academic credit for completing MOOCs. If that happens, MOOC providers will profit at the cost of faculty jobs. The dignity of faculty as workers will be damaged.

Finally, in collectively standing against MOOCs, Catholic colleges can show that education is a mission shared across different institutional types. Catholic institutions compete with one another for students, faculty, and athletics championships, but education itself, which is governed not by scarcity but by abundance, must not become a competitive endeavor. MOOCs hold out the dangerous prospect of larger Catholic universities' crowding out smaller ones in the name of competitive advantage.

If MOOCs enable elite universities to cut into their smaller peers' student base, then the largest and richest will be the only ones left. In fact, that is exactly what the Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun predicts will happen within 50 years.

If, in a few decades, the number of Catholic colleges in the United States amounts to only a handful of mega-universities, with most students taking classes online, in physical isolation from their professors and peers, then the project of Catholic higher education will have failed. Not only will it have abandoned personal and local education, but it will have elevated the market principles of competition and consolidation above the Catholic social-justice principles of solidarity (making decisions that benefit the common good) and subsidiarity (making decisions at the lowest and most local possible level).

Once Catholic colleges distinguish themselves from the MOOC-addled crowd by making this appeal to their tradition's moral principles (and once they persuade Georgetown to give up its MOOCs), they need to put those principles into action. They need to make sure that they really do educate the whole person—with faculty who embody what it means to be an educated person. They must also treat their employees, especially their highly vulnerable contingent faculty, like the sources of value they really are.

Finally, Catholic institutions must demonstrate that they are collaborators more than competitors. Catholic colleges share a common, noble mission. The emergence of MOOCs may be their best opportunity to prove it.

Jonathan Malesic is an associate professor of theology at King's College, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.