Though the massive open online courses trend seems to pervade higher education today, Georgetown is the only Catholic university that has added MOOCs to its curriculum.
In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, John Malesic, an associate professor of theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., argued that MOOCs do not align with a Catholic education.
“You take the MOOC, but you’re on your own in figuring out how your learning fits into the rest of your life — or how it might require changing your life. … Moral education, which Catholic institutions promise (and secular ones, too, should offer), relies on dialogue and physical proximity,” Malesic wrote. “Students therefore need accessible mentors on the faculty as well as counselors, advisers and chaplains.”
Georgetown joined edX, and online MOOC platform, in December, and its first online course will launch Oct. 1.
According to Vice President for Mission and Ministry Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., many institutions have not implemented MOOCs simply because of the cost-benefit analysis. The creation of an average MOOC costs between $15,000 and $50,000, but universities earn no revenue because all MOOCs are free to students.
Philosophy professor Karen Stohr, who is helping to develop the university’s Bioethics MOOC course, acknowledged the necessity of the components of a Catholic education Malesic mentions but weighed these costs against the benefits of reaching more people.
“I think that Catholic institutions, especially Jesuit institutions, need that personal communication and presence, but we also have to recognize that it isn’t a possibility for a lot of people,” Stohr said. “If there are ways in which we can expand and meet the desire that people have for knowledge, a deeply important human desire, we should do it.”
O’Brien agreed that MOOCs and Catholic or Jesuit higher education are compatible.
“Some of the purposes of the MOOCs are to disseminate knowledge broadly and to provide access to higher education to those who do not have access,” O’Brien said. “Providing greater access [to education] is a matter of social justice and that is an important value for a Jesuit university.”
Knights of Columbus Inside Guard Louis Cona (COL ’15), however, agreed with Malesic’s analysis of MOOCs’ danger to traditional Catholic education.
“I think this is dangerous because you lose that person to person contact that is essential to the liberal arts, which I think is also important for a Catholic and Jesuit university like Georgetown, which prides itself on a liberal arts education and cura personalis,” Cona said.
Dan Myers, vice president and associate provost for faculty affairs at Notre Dame University, a Catholic university that is considering joining a MOOC platform, did not see MOOCs as a threat to Catholic educational values.
“There’s an opportunity for us to share our knowledge with the world in a different way that’s much broader than what we can do on our campus,” Myers said.
Though Malesic argued that MOOCs have not fulfilled the goal of reaching people who could not otherwise attend college, saying that most MOOC students are from developed countries and already hold degrees, Georgetown faculty countered that technology can reach lesser-developed areas.
“I know from my experience with Jesuits in lesser-developed countries that online learning can have a very concrete and positive effect, and for Georgetown to be involved in the dissemination of knowledge to people who are not getting it is at the core of our mission as a Catholic university,” O’Brien said.
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., agreed and said that the underserved populations of first-world countries can also benefit from MOOCs.
“MOOCs offer an opportunity to democratize education that I think is hugely important,” Carnes said. “Students could be getting a Georgetown education that they couldn’t get otherwise.”