MOOCs and SpongeBob SquarePants

SpongeBob SquarePants is a talking sponge who lives beneath the ocean, in the pleasant community of Bikini Bottom, with his many cartoon friends. But you knew that already. If not, here is background.

The thing about SpongeBob is his eternal optimism and good cheer. Notwithstanding daunting challenges, which can be formidable in Bikini Bottom, Bob knows it’s going to be okay—even fun! Yay! We can do it! His goofy grin is infectious, and a nice antidote to the talking heads on cable news.

Which brings us to the promise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Just a few years ago, many commentators predicted that MOOCs would revolutionize higher education, and fast. Massive! Open! Free! Yay!

Well, MOOCs are still around, but highly concentrated in a few select arenas, and funded by well-heeled and selective organizations and institutions. As for community colleges, no one believes in a sudden disruption. Some prognosticators still envision amazing things, as in this article in Inside Higher Ed., by Joshua Kim, who compares the MOOC paradigm to the transformation engendered by the smart phone. Maybe, but it’s apples and oranges.

Technology can be intellectually transformative. The Protestant Reformation was at least partly spawned by new printing methods, allowing Martin Luther’s “priesthood of all believers.” Who needs clergy when you can read scripture for yourself, translated into the vernacular? Yay! (We must acknowledge that it didn’t take long for Protestants and Catholics to start burning each other at the stake.)

A fundamental error of many educational futurists is to equate pedagogy with access to information. The latter is the easy part, relatively speaking. Education (as in “courses”) is meant to be a challenge—even arduous. As teachers we must ask students to do things they may not want to do. There is no app for that.

Our smart phones provide us with lots of information, instantly. But where is the challenge?