Did Marshall McLuhan Foresee MOOCs?


MOOC of course stands for Massive Open Online Course, a recent form of online learning that is causing a stir in the world of higher education. As a specialist in online learning, I was enrolled in the very first one in 1978, offered by George Siemens of Athabasca University (at the U of Manitoba then) and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council of Canada. I found it to be unstructured, chaotic in its disorganuzation and not especially conducive to learning; with many thousands enrolled in the course, there were thousands of postings and interaction with other learners and instructors was difficult. The answer to the question in the title is that Marshall McLuhan did not foresee MOOCs specifically, but he did predict the arrival of online learning in all its forms………AlexK

Massive Online Open Courses: From McLuhan to MOOC

In this summer of 2012 the buzz in the world of higher education is about massive online open courses, or “MOOC.” It seems that cyber-prophet Marshall McLuhan saw this coming.

As a classroom teacher for over 35 years who is about to set a virtual foot onto the campus of MOOC U (my neuroethics course will be offered by Coursera in January, the other major entrant into MOOC being EdX), I wonder what I’m getting into. I have a feeling I’m not alone among my dozens of colleagues in this regard. Surely they also wonder if the transmission of knowledge to which they’ve given much of their lives is about to undergo an unpredictable transformation in which they will play a part. University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson is dubious that the classroom artistry of the truly fine teacher can be captured in the online experience.

Edmundson has a point. I know exactly what he means when he compares those precious moments of didactic flow in a physical classroom to jazz improvisation. Yet the precise contours of the MOOC experience and its implications for higher education remain a mystery to everyone, including the investors, institutions and instructors. All we really know is that (1) the sheer number of potential online students is mind-boggling and hard to resist; and (2) the “production values” need to be far better than those for the university-produced online lectures I’ve watched in the past few years.

The MOOCs need to hit that sweet spot between two hours of a static lecturer-focused camera and the flash-and-dash of TED Talks. But at this stage that still doesn’t tell us much about what to expect.

In search of an oracle, I stumbled upon a piece co-authored by Marshall McLuhan in 1967 in, of all places, Look magazine (many teachers worry that online students will look but not think). The article forecast the learning experience of “The Class of 1989”; the same issue included a long essay by a Look senior editor on “The Generation Gap.” Just as young people were demanding more “relevance” in schools, McLuhan recites the longstanding progressive critique of standardized education as “bodies of knowledge” and lectures, the latter seen “one of the least effective [mode of education] ever devised by man,” soon to go the way of all other “mechanized production line[s].”

Instead, McLuhan wrote, the new modes of instantaneous, long-distance human communication — radio, telephone, television — are linking the world’s people in a vast net of electric circuitry that creates a new depth and breadth of personal involvement and events and breaks down the old, traditional boundaries that made specialization possible.” McLuhan thus foresaw the end of the mass-produced student. “When computers are properly used, in fact, they are almost certain to increase individual diversity. A worldwide network of computers will make all of mankind’s factual knowledge available to all students everywhere in a matter of minutes or seconds.”

Not bad for 1967, just as the Pentagon’s packet switching technology was indeed laying the groundwork for “a worldwide network of computers.” http://tinyurl.com/chm5gvq

Here are two longer quotes from that important LOOK magazine article:

More swiftly than we can realize, we are moving into an era dazzlingly different. Fragmentation, specialization and sameness will be replaced by wholeness, diversity and, above all, a deep involvement… To be involved means to be drawn in, to interact. To go on interacting, the student must get some-where. In other words, the student and the learning environment (a person, a group of people, a book, a programmed course, an electronic learning console or whatever) must respond to each other in a pleasing and purposeful interplay. When a situation of involvement is set up, the student finds it hard to drag himself away.”   – McLuhan, M. & Leonard, G.B. (1967). The Future of Education: The Class of 1989. LOOK  Magazine. Feb. 21, 1967, pp. 23-25.

“When computers are properly used, in fact, they are almost certain to increase individual diversity. A worldwide network of computers will make all of mankind’s factual knowledge available to students everywhere in a matter of minutes or seconds. Then, the human brain will not have to serve as a repository of specific facts, and the uses of memory will shift in the new education, breaking the timeworn, rigid chains of memory may have greater priority than forging new links. New materials may be learned just as were the great myths of past cultures-as fully integrated systems that resonate on several levels and share the qualities of poetry and song.” – McLuhan, M. & Leonard, G.B. (1967, Feb. 21). The Future of Education: The Class of 1989. LOOK  Magazine. pp. 23-25.

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