Unequal Classrooms: What Online Education Cannot Teach

Jennifer M. Morton, The Creative Classroom, Jul 31, 2013
Commentary by Stephen Downes

It doesn't take much to jump from "what can't online education teach?" to "what can't MOOCs teach?" but that's the state of play in today's educational discourse, where terms like 'MOOC' (and, for that matter, 'free' and 'open') can mean whatever you want them to (and where, somehow, 'education' has come to mean 'memorization' and 'school' now means 'job training'). Anyhow, philosophy professor Jennifer M. Morton tells us "college is the first place where they will be asked to defend a position and to engage in vigorous intellectual debate. It is also likely to be the first place where they have to consistently engage with middle-class students and professors and navigate middle-class social norms." You know, this whole 'social norms' and 'interpersonal communication' thing. "Children of middle-class families learn how to navigate middle-class social relationships at home. Children from impoverished communities often do not."

True, all too true, and I've pointed to this phenomenon myself in recent discussions. But I framed it a bit differently - I identified it as part of the value proposition offered by upper class elite universities. If the middle class learns its norms at state and community colleges (and the lower classes, I guess, learn their norms on the street?) then it's also true that the weathy and privileged learn their norms apart from the rest of us at Oxford and Cambridge, Yale and Harvard. You know - where presidents and prime minsters go to study. And what I argue (and surely a philosophy professor must appreciate the logic of this) is that if we are actually interested in social equity then the best thing we can do is to dismantle the system that sorts us into social classes and replace it with a system where we all learn through the same medium - these days, interchangeably referred to as online education or MOOC.

I know I'm outside 'the club' that gets to rule our lives and our society, not simply because of my rough edges, but also because I didn't have the right friends in high school, university or at the workplace. But I'll be damned if I'm going to simply accept that.

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