Why Virtual Classes Can Be Better Than Real Ones

I teach one of the world’s most popular MOOCs (massive online open courses), “Learning How to Learn,” with neuroscientist Terrence J. Sejnowski, the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. The course draws on neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and education to explain how our brains absorb and process information, so we can all be better students. Since it launched on the website Coursera in August of 2014, nearly 1 million students from over 200 countries have enrolled in our class. We’ve had cardiologists, engineers, lawyers, linguists, 12-year-olds, and war refugees in Sudan take the course. We get emails like this one that recently arrived: “I’ll keep it short. I’ve recently completed your MOOC and it has already changed my life in ways you cannot imagine. I just turned 29, am in the middle of a career change to computer science, and I’ve never been more excited to learn.”

It’s a wonderful feeling to receive notes like this, as teachers around the world know. As gratifying as the note is personally, it also speaks for the impact of MOOCs. We all know about the importance of an education system, and how much society could gain if education, particularly for the disadvantaged, were improved. Online courses allow us to scale up those opportunities—a better education at lower cost. Already the numbers are impressive. More than 500 colleges and universities and 200 organizations and institutions offer MOOCs, with a total of 30 million users.

At the same time that “Learning How to Learn” has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my 20 years as a teacher—I am currently a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan—I confess to feeling a little defensive. The success and tremendous educational potential for MOOCs has been dinged by some high-profile articles in the past couple of years. In an article called “Trapped in the Virtual Classroom” in the New York Review of Books, David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale University, claimed that the “MOOC movement cooperates with the tendency of mechanization” and “discourages more complex thinking about the content and aims of education

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