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By Dan W. Butin / September 2012

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"If you can be replaced by a computer, you should be." This sentiment, a lovely mix of bravado and idealism about what it means to be a college instructor, has become the battle cry of academics unwilling to believe that their world is about to be turned upside down. It is a belief that who we are and what we do as faculty is unquantifiable, outside of the purview of the ones and zeros of computerization. We, the belief goes, guide critical thinking, explode false assumptions, foster insights, and make possible those ineffable "aha" moments. As Adam Falk, the President of Williams College, put it forcefully in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, computerized learning will never be capable of replacing "interaction with real, live human beings."

I wish it were so. But the problematic reality is that most instructors never even get close to those moments. Half of all faculty do nothing but lecture in all or most of their classes; and what they lecture about is usually at the very bottom of Bloom's Taxonomy, focusing on factual recall rather than critical analysis, synthesis or application; and that knowledge is itself barely absorbed by students for more than a semester. Sometimes I half-wonder, in those long moments of the night, whether it might be better if we were indeed replaced.

That crazy idea, it turns out, may no longer be so far away. For in under a year, the rise of the MOOCs (massively open online courses) has fundamentally reshaped how we think and talk about teaching and learning in higher education. MOOCs have become the darlings of the educational policy world: they have been cited as the solution to the college debt crisis, as the future of higher education, as the best way to make higher education more productive, and at the center of the recent intrigues at the University of Virginia that almost toppled its president.

And this is, trust me, just the beginning. As major for-profit players truly enter the online learning market and top-tier foundations begin to place their bets, the notion that what we as faculty do is irreplaceable becomes to appear just a tad quaint, if not downright anachronistic.

Yet I want to suggest that we—the faculty and administration in higher education—actually have an opportunity to put a stake in the ground for meaningful and powerful teaching and learning so long as we actually begin to clarify and act upon what it is that we as faculty do. For what President Falk was referring to as "interaction" is actually a much more focused, subtle, and transformative phenomenon: what is formally called a cognitive apprenticeship. This is the process whereby teachers carefully and deliberately guide students to make visible metacognitive principles, fostering learning within authentic contexts and across multiple domains. It is about moving learners from novices to experts; or, more colloquially, teaching them to fish rather than just feeding them one.

It is exactly because of this classroom-based opportunity of transformation that I want to double-down on place-based bricks-and-mortar institutions in this age of online learning. In fact, I want to suggest that what higher education truly offers is the potential for an "apprenticeship into liberty," a phrase I borrow from Alexis de Tocqueville, who reminded us that such a process is "never easy" as it takes time, deliberation, and action. And in the context of higher education, few of us have been trained in the scholarship of teaching and learning and thus able to guide such learning.

Let me be clear: I believe MOOCs have the ability, if done well, to transform the teaching of certain courses and even disciplines in higher education. And there is no doubt that this is where higher education is going as the enrollment in MOOCs begins to surpass entire sectors of postsecondary education and colleges begin to accept these courses for credit. MOOCs will soon become the de facto way to remediate and educate a broad swath of postsecondary students in a wide variety of content areas.

But MOOCs can only take us so far. They will not destroy higher education; if we are lucky, they will save it. For remember that higher education is not simply about "content knowledge"; higher education also serves important socialization and stratification functions, and as such will not soon disappear.

Anthropologists talk about schooling as an extended "rite of passage" in that we come to learn what is expected of us in the larger society. A college degree thus serves as a signaling mechanism that we have spent the last four years going to class, passing tests, and doing more or less what we were told. And while this may indeed have something to do with learning, from a sociological perspective, the hidden curriculum is much more about how we deal with things like authority and evaluation.

Similarly, a college degree offers a seemingly comparable and linear measure of quality and thus stratification. We somehow "know" that an Ivy League degree is worth more than one from the local state university. Irrespective of a student's grades or the quality of her interview, there is a cultural notion—what is technically termed as the "halo effect"—that we get what we paid for. Higher education as a place-based institution will thus be with us for a long time to come; the question is in what form and to what ends.

So I say bring them on. Give me MOOCs that offer my students access to the most dynamic professors in the world, offering the best lectures, linking to the coolest videos, and using the most sophisticated feedback mechanisms to get them to a certain baseline of knowledge. Give me factual content delivery any and every day of the week. And then let me do the rest. MOOCs may be damn good at transferring knowledge into students' brains; it is then my job is to transform that knowledge into the real world. For MOOCs provide an apprenticeship into Wikipedia; faculty— if we do our jobs right—provide an apprenticeship into democracy.

This then is the fundamental value proposition of higher education, but only if we come to accept that education is about the praxis of linking theory and practice, of facts and values, of knowledge and action.

MOOCs, the epitome of the impersonal, may have (in a lovely moment of irony) just given us a chance to embrace and enhance the most personal aspects of what higher education does.

About the Author

Dan W. Butin is an associate professor and founding dean of the school of education at Merrimack College and the executive director of the Center for Engaged Democracy. He is the author and editor of more than 70 academic publications, including the books Service-Learning in Theory and Practice: The Future of Community Engagement in Higher Education (2010), which won the 2010 Critics Choice Book Award of the American Educational Studies Association, Service-Learning and Social Justice Education (2008), Teaching Social Foundations of Education (2005), and, most recently with Scott Seider, The Engaged Campus: Majors, Minors, and Certificates as the New Community Engagement (2012). Butin's research focuses on issues of educator preparation and policy, and community engagement. Prior to working in higher education, he was a middle school math and science teacher and the chief financial officer of Teach For America. More about Dan Butin's work can be found at

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/09 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2371029.2377676


  • Tue, 18 Dec 2012
    Post by Haitham El-Ghareeb

    This article is really amazing. It simplifies the story of MOOCs in our educational system. From my point of view, I guarantee to all of us that educators and our educational system will keep in existence, getting better hopefully. I remember we got through this battle before at the early days of e-Learning.

  • Fri, 14 Dec 2012
    Post by William Hersh

    Interesting article, and I have expressed similar sentiments in a posting from my blog:

    Bill Hersh