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Turning Back the Clock on Lifelong Learning: The Paradox of MOOCs

Massive Open Online Learning has certainly been making big waves in higher education this year, but the question is whether it’s turning back the clock on learner-centered learning. Photo by Tom McNemar.

Within the higher education community 2012 may well be known as the “year of online learning.” Seemingly legitimized now by the embrace of elite institutions like Harvard and MIT through EdX and the Coursera partnership with Stanford, Princeton and others, online learning and the rise of the MOOC dominates the popular and professional literature.

Those unwilling to accept this “disruptive innovation” are seen as modern Luddites whose static, cognitive world view simply will not encompass the power of teaching and learning through technology. While the increased access to learning through technology is to be applauded and is the logical extension of American higher education’s balance between democracy and meritocracy, online learning’s place in the intellectual context of lifelong learning poses some paradoxes that warrant consideration.

Rooted in Carl Rogers’ humanistic psychology and Malcolm Knowles andragogy, the heart of lifelong learning is the learner themselves from a holistic perspective. Intellect, attitude, emotions, personality, biography and behavior all come into play. Teaching and learning become, as Martin Buber said, an “I-thou” relationship. Here, the teacher—and the subject or academic or applied content—are not the exclusive authority, but instead the informed facilitator, for self-growth.

While the MOOC is indeed content rich and at one’s finger tips, a didactic view of knowledge to be dispensed by experts and banked by learners is limiting. Mediated techniques have, of course, overcome the traditional boundaries of time and space. Still, though, they are just that; mediated by a technological medium. An artifice is introduced in the facilitator-learner dynamic. A caution is that the learner may become a passive observer rather than an active participant in the learning transaction, inhibiting the sense of independence required for the liberation to learn.

As the adult learner moves toward intellectual and emotional maturity, learning becomes increasingly self-directed. Explored as early as 1963 by Cyril Houle and researched more fully by his doctoral student Alan Tough in 1971, an adult’s managed learning projects are fundamental to a learning society. Its threshold premise is that learning is not to be confined to or confused with schooling; it is not delimited to institutional settings. In fact, extra-institutional leaning makes one’s social context a multifarious classroom. Contemporary manifestations of online learning put the institution at the center which is contrary to a lifelong learning tenet; independent learning.

If learning is viewed as a valuable commodity with access determined by institutional capacity and readiness, the learner could again become the recipient of institutionally defined knowledge. In a rush to broaden access, the potential for institutional dependence exists. While elite institutions share information through MOOCs, they still ensure the scarcity value of highly priced degree and face-to-face or hybrid continuing education opportunities.

Inherent then in the celebration of online learning is a paradox. While it is consistent with the liberating access to higher education necessary for lifelong learning, it poses the threat of renewed learner dependence. Teaching and learning are at their best transformative for both the educator and the learner. Technology does not preclude this, in fact if used creatively technology can enhance the experience. But uncritical acceptance of the one-way directional transmission of information may take the learner away from the fulfillment that comes with self-directed awareness and learning.

Reliance on formal schooling confines the parameters within which learning can occur. Lifelong learning enjoys an intellectual heritage that marries Dewey’s progressivism to meet communal ends with the Rogerian quest for intellectual and emotional independence. Used within that framework online learning can indeed further lifelong learning’s ultimate end—freedom to learn.

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