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Educating Rita in the age of the MOOC

Are massive open online courses and other online innovations helping or hindering the goal of teaching students how to learn?

In the award-winning 1983 film Educating Rita, a hairdresser decides to better herself by studying literature at Britain’s Open University. Then, as now, OU offers courses remotely, but students are assigned tutors whom they meet in person. Rita’s tutor, Frank Grant, is an English professor at the University of Liverpool (played in the film by Trinity College Dublin). His marriage is failing and he’s an alcoholic.

As the plot unfolds, the jaded Grant becomes saddened when Rita’s warm, spontaneous response to literature evolves into the sort of pretentious analytical approach that he despises. The teacher ends up learning as much from his pupil as she learns from him. Educating Rita is an inspiring tale of self-discovery and the power of choice that education bestows. The film also, albeit implicitly, underscores the value of the now unfashionable practice of one-on-one tutoring.

Aspiring literature student Susan "Rita" White (Julie Walters) trims the hair of her tutor, Frank Grant (Michael Caine). CREDIT: Columbia Pictures

Aspiring literature student Susan "Rita" White (Julie Walters) trims the hair of her tutor, Frank Grant (Michael Caine). CREDIT: Columbia Pictures

Individual tutoring has existed since the beginning of civilization. Lecture-based instruction predates the printing press. Correspondence education is about a century old. Now we have the MOOC (massive open online course). But do we have better education?

In an influential lecture delivered in 1947, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Oxford-educated Dorothy L. Sayers advocated a return to the medieval university where the syllabus was divided into two successive parts: the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music). She eloquently wrote, “We have lost the tools of learning—the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane—that were so adaptable to all tasks.” Children, Sayers contended, are taught everything but how to learn.

Do MOOCs and other online innovations help or hinder us teach students how to learn? They are certainly growing in popularity. Even Harvard University has jumped onto the bandwagon, and the president of the University of Virginia nearly lost her job, in part, because she was not adopting Internet learning fast enough. Despite the MOOC deluge, this contrarian believes that the new MOOC paradigm constitutes a step backward.

Humans are social beings and learning is a social process. Both require interaction and connection to flourish. The absence of those factors undermines the effectiveness of online instruction. In our digital, mobile society, in-person discussion forums are still the most effective tools for student–student and student–teacher interactions.

The trouble with online education

Even in a large lecture hall, a good teacher is able to sense the students’ mood and receptivity, and instantly adapt to them. If a course is good, rich and spontaneous interactions occur among its members. In a 2012 New York Times op/ed article, Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia, likened a memorable “bricks and mortar” course to a jazz composition: There is a basic melody that you work with—as defined by the syllabus—but there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against the disciplining background.

Acquiring knowledge is not the same as knowing what to do with that knowledge. Learning to analyze, evaluate, synthesize, collaborate, innovate, and use information is what education is all about. In my opinion, MOOCs do not offer much beyond a do-it-yourself learning culled from the vast information available on the Internet.

There are, of course, the fortunate few who have the superior discipline, motivation, and intellect to teach themselves and to make sense of this information. But the majority of us do not possess those gifts. MOOCs and the Internet are no different from having a library at your disposal. Both offer monologues, not dialogues. Dialogues are individual, labor-intensive, and expensive, but they nurture learning and critical thinking. Monologues, for the most part, do not.

Lecture-based instruction could undoubtedly be improved, but MOOCs are far from being a panacea to our real or perceived pedagogical shortcomings. Would anyone want a physician or a lawyer who is taught the fundamentals of medicine or law via MOOCs? Believing that MOOCs improve the learning process is akin to wishing that incessant texting and tweeting could produce the next Tennessee Williams.

In the stage musical The King and I, British schoolteacher Anna, during her first encounter with her Siamese pupils, sings

It’s a very ancient saying
But a true and honest thought
That if you become a teacher
By your pupils you’ll be taught . . .
Getting to know you
Getting to know all about you.

How could one even come close to this magic in an online course? The Internet has changed our world, and mostly for the better. But when it comes to education, teachers—whether lecturing or tutoring—should not be replaced by machines. Dehumanizing education in the same way factories were dehumanized will not improve the institution’s productivity. This teacher is unabashedly laudator temporis acti—one who praises past time.

Mohamed Gad-el-Hak is the Inez Caudill Eminent Professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Contact him at

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