Are MOOCs technical or practical?

All the NY Times columnists will be writing about MOOCs before long, I suspect. Today it was David Brooks’ turn: “The Practical University”. His argument is that digital technology allows much more efficient transmission of “technical” know-how than do classrooms in big buildings, but “practical” know-how cannot be taught without real hands-on training.

The problem is that as online education becomes more pervasive, universities can no longer primarily be in the business of transmitting technical knowledge. Online offerings from distant, star professors will just be too efficient. As Ben Nelson of Minerva University points out, a school cannot charge students $40,000 and then turn around and offer them online courses that they can get free or nearly free. That business model simply does not work. There will be no such thing as a MOOC university.
Nelson believes that universities will end up effectively telling students: Take the following online courses over the summer or over a certain period, and then, when youre done, you will come to campus and thats when our job will begin. If Nelson is right, then universities in the future will spend much less time transmitting technical knowledge and much more time transmitting practical knowledge.

Like many NY Times columns about education, this one reads like a paid advertisement – in this case for Minerva University. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, but I don’t think the practical-technical distinction holds. In anthropology, for example, it is possible for us to use digital tools to bring much more of the experience of the field to students than we can accomplish in the classroom. I also think the “technical-practical” distinction breaks down when considering laboratory work.

I think a basic rule of thumb is to ask whether the analogy works for sports. In sports, we have broadcast events seen by millions, and coaching clinics that scale down to individuals. It takes lots of experience and practice to perform a sport well..and it also takes some experience and practice to watch a sport well. But watching and playing are not the same kinds of activity. They can enhance each other, feed back on each other, and both can contribute to broader appreciation. And digital tools can help with both of them – they’re just different digital tools.