A former classmate from the University of Chicago telephoned several months ago and asked if I would teach an online journalism course for the university in Illinois where he has taught for the last 15 years.
I declined the offer. But before doing so, I reminisced about the great face-to-face lectures and discussions we had in Chicago's Classics Building, our debates on the lawn in the quads, how our late afternoon classes moved to Woodlawn Tap and how a group of us regularly studied together in Regenstein Library on the third floor.
My classmate pointed out that such nostalgia wouldn't do anything to help the nation's tens of thousands of students being shut out of our colleges and universities because there is not enough space and professors for them.
He said that MOOCs, short for massive open online courses, are the answer. I said that higher education today is about budget cuts and body counts. It is not about nurturing the whole student.
"Today's education doesn't have any essence or soul," I said. As I expected, my friend countered that "essence and soul don't pay the mortgage."
Since that conversation, MOOCs have been making headlines. These are courses taught online to large numbers of students, with most professors having little involvement with their students. Students usually watch video lectures and do assignments that are graded either by other students or by a machine.
Currently, no colleges or universities offer credit or accept transfer credit for these mega-classes, which are typically taught by outside groups that include unaccredited for-profit outfits. And there is a distinction to be made between these offerings and classes that leverage new technology to maintain direct faculty-to-student interaction despite distance.
But a movement in California has educators everywhere paying attention to MOOCs. Last week, Democratic state Sen. Darrell Steinberg introduced a bill that would require California's 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for low-cost online courses offered by outside groups. The bill has a good chance to pass.
I wanted to hear from someone whose opinions I trust on such matters, so I spoke with Donald Eastman, president of Eckerd College, a private school in St. Petersburg. He said that online courses have a useful place in higher education. So far, that place has been in courses for adults who, for various reasons, have limited options to attend regular classes.
"Much more importantly, a string of courses — online or not — does not add up to a real college experience, even if these courses do add up, at some places, to a degree," he said. "As the Wizard of Oz says to the scarecrow, 'I cannot give you a brain, but I can give you a diploma.' "
Eastman argues that the real value of a college education comes through face-to-face debate and discussion with teachers and students before, during and particularly after class.
He said he takes a lesson about the status of undergraduate education from what the president of the Chautauqua Institute told him about the legal profession over the last generation.
"He said the legal profession used to be about relationships, but now it's about transactions," Eastman said. "That is exactly what politicians with their insistence on 'no child left behind' and their advocacy of excessive and unremitting testing of students at virtually every grade level are doing: reducing education from a holistic experience to a series of discrete and often meaningless transactions."
It is nonsense, Eastman said, for public or private universities to pretend that online courses for young undergraduates provide quality education.
Like Eastman, Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, sees essential value in the campus experience. In a recent article for the Atlantic magazine, Zimmer wrote that college "provides young adults with the intellectual capital to succeed and the social capital to help them make connections, build networks, and establish lifelong relationships.
"It provides them with skills in analysis and reasoning combined with confidence that will lead them boldly to articulate and embrace new ideas. It transforms their perspectives, opening them up to different cultures, different world views, and different ways of seeing — and solving — some of the world's most complex problems."
MOOCs may be the future in this budget-slashing era, but the intrinsic value of higher education will diminish, and the nation will suffer in unforeseen ways if we continue on this path.