Why Effective Writing Can't Be Taught by MOOCs

Why Effective Writing Can't Be Taught by MOOCs

By: Louis Conrad on October 14, 2013

MOOCs are on everyone's lips. Some say they are a cure-all for everything that ails higher education. Others think MOOCs are destined to destroy higher education. Both parties may be right. But one thing is clear: It's difficult to teach liberal arts courses via MOOCs.

Why is this so? It comes down to grading. While courses like computer science lend themselves to multiple choice exams, composition and literature courses don't.

The best way to learn the art of effective writing is to practice, practice, practice. A multiple choice exam isn't going to cut it; you've got to dig out the classics and put them to good use. Take Robert L. Stevenson. The guy is a fantastic prose stylist -- witty, urbane, learned. But were he alive today and had to take a MOOc, he'd probably fail miserably. Check out this sample and decide whether or not Stevenson would do well in a twenty-first century classroom:

"From Bleymard after dinner, although it was already late, I set out to scale a portion of the Lozere. An ill-marked stony drove-road guided me forward; and I met nearly half a dozen bullock-carts descending from the woods, each laden with a whole pine-tree for the winter's firing. At the top of the woods, which do not climb very high upon this cold ridge, I struck leftward by a path among the pines, until I hit on a dell of green turf, where a streamlet made a little spout over some stones to serve me for a water-tap, "In a more sacred or sequestered bower--nor nymph nor faunas haunted." The trees were not old, but they grew thickly round the glade: there was no outlook, except northeastward upon distant hill-tops, or straight upward to the sky; and the encampment felt secure and private like a room. By the time I had made my arrangements and fed Modestine, the day was already beginning to decline. I buckled myself to the knees into my sack and made a hearty meal; and as soon as the sun went down, I pulled my cap over my eyes and fell asleep."

"Night is a dead monotonous period under a roof; but in the open world it passes lightly, with its stars and dews and perfumes, and the hours are marked by changes in the face of Nature. What seems a kind of temporal death to people choked between walls and curtains, is only a light and living slumber to the man who sleeps afield. All night long he can hear Nature breathing deeply and freely; even as she takes her rest she turns and smiles; and there is one stirring hour unknown to those who dwell in houses, when a wakeful influence goes abaroad over the sleeping hemisphere, and all the outdoor world are on their feet. It is then that the cock first crows, not this time to announce the dawn, but like a cheerful watchman speeding the course of night. Cattle awake on the meadows; sheep break their fast on dewy hillsides, and change to a new lair among the ferns; and houseless men who have lain down with the fowls, open their dim eyes and behold the beauty of the night.""

This paragraph sounds especially good:

"When that hour came to me among the pines, I wakened thirsty. My tin was standing by me half full of water. I emptied it at a draught; and feeling broad awake after this internal cold aspersion, sat upright to make a cigarette. The stars were clear, coloured, and jewel-like, but not frosty. A faint silvery vapour stood for the Milky Way. All around me the black fir-points stood upright and stock-still. By the whiteness of the pack-saddle, I could see Modestine walking round and round at the length of her tether; I could hear her steadily munching at the sward; but there was not another sound, save the indescribable quiet talk of the runnel over the stones. I lay lazily smoking and studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish gray behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars. As if to be more like a peddler, I wear a silver ring."

Stevenson was a master of his art. His prose is fluid and clear. He drives his point home without fuss.But if he were tested according to MOOC standards, he would fail. Think about that next time you think that MOOCs will save higher education. They very well might destroy it in the process.

But don't let that dissuade you from pursuing a degree online. Online degrees can provide plenty of satisfaction; you need only bring to them what you can and understand the limits of online education. 

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