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Thanks go to Peter Lawler for shedding some light on MOOCS. I want to go him one better, however, and suggest a superior form of the same idea, which is only slightly more expensive. Price quality, this alternative is a real steal.

The alternative has been around for a long time. It is almost spelled the same as MOOCs, or at least it is close. I am speaking of BOOKs. A Book, like a MOOC, can get the best teacher around— in fact, in some cases, if that person has been dead for some time, and his or her “course” is still up to date, you can find some very talented teachers without paying them a cent. Say you wanted a course on Renaissance Art; your “MOOC” could be Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculpters, and Architects. Just hire the TAs, have the students read the book (or pretend to), administer the exam, and that’s it. No need to pay Professor x a sum of money, no need for the production costs, and no chance that the course will bomb. Want to know something about ethics? There once was a fellow who published a book under roughly that title, and he wrote one on rhetoric and politics as well. Ok, if these are a little too tough, let’s just take some solid textBOOKs. These are nothing but MOOCs on paper—lectures put into transcripts. They have some advantages, too. It’s easier to scroll back and forth, check an index, and absorb material in tables and charts. It is true that books discriminate against students who can’t read, but learning to read would produce students of much higher quality. That would be, as the educational businessmen of today like to say, a “win-win” situation.

Of course, you could reverse the process. Just take a good MOOC and transcribe it. That way students could do thier course on a plane or train without straining their eyes on a small screen or violating FAA regulations on take offs or landings. Come to think of it, this has already been done before, too. A good course on the Philosophy of History was once a MOOC transcribed by some of he professor’s students. Here is another advantage. You will sometimes find that teachers who aren’t quite as good at “projecting,” or who are not so pleasant to look at, may have more to say than a skilled MOOC artist. So if the object happens to be education, a BOOK might actually be an improvement over a MOOC.

Who did you study political philosophy with last semester? The student who relies on MOOC smight respond Michael Sandel. The student who had access to a BOOK might respond Plato. True, a few of the BOOKs might produce courses that would prove a too difficult for students to pursue on their own. (MOOCs, being designed for their market niche should ordinarily not suffer from this problem.) And how many TA’s would be competent, really, to handle grading papers or judging exams for one of those difficult BOOKs? Under the old system, sometimes universities hired super TAs whose job it was to amplify or begin to explain some of these more difficult books. These TAs were called professors, but they proved too expensive. So maybe there is something to the MOOC after all!

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