MOOCs – Machines Make Poor Mentors


Posted on February 13, 2014 by Ruth O’Brien

The debate over Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) versus brick-and-mortar teaching is a false one.  To my mind, the real battle is between live bodies and teachable (not smart) robots and machines who offer faculty templates for template-teaching.  Software is only as smart as those who write the programs.  Or at least until programming is written by machines, my brother-in-law assures me.

Robots and machines make rather poor mentors.  Not only do inanimate machines lack emotion or the passion required for teaching, faking it doesn’t work.  Even if programmers make computer voices more appealing (e.g. Scarlett’s voice in Her), they can’t inspire scholarship, or give students the ability to learn critically.

Our robots, computers, and template teachers may provide us with a lot of choices or information about education, but as happens commonly in the Internet era, it turns out that we are all burdened by too much, not too little, knowledge and information.  Indeed, there is a new job-consulting category since I last looked that upper-middle-class parents have begun using (college consultants, who help parent and students with the application process).  We all need our gatekeepers as we weed through the real and the misleading data on college and university websites.

Now The Economist tells us there will be celebrity professors instructing the world with their MOOCs.  I’m not so sure.  Look what happened to the most powerful professor?  (Obama that is.)

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About Ruth O'Brien

Professor Ruth O'Brien, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York (CUNY) & Honorary Unaffiliated Academic Book Series Editor for The Public Square, Princeton University Press & Heretical Thought, Oxford University Press, USA Last book: Out of Many, One: Obama & the Third American Political Tradition (U of Chicago 2013). Nickname: Professorette by Rush Limbaugh (see

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