A Catholic Case Against MOOCs: A Mennonite affirmation


2010 logo for Catholic Schools week in the US

2010 logo for Catholic Schools Week in the US

This morning our provost sent a few folks a story at The Chronicle, “A Catholic Case Against MOOCs,” and asked if we Mennonites had anything to learn from such an argument. Since it dealt with the high-tech MOOC phenomenon, it made its way to me, the “ed-tech guy.”

But I’m also the product of a Mennonite education in theology and restorative justice, and have benefited greatly from various aspects of the robust and long Roman Catholic tradition. The author specifically cites the social justice tradition within Catholicism, which very much resonates with the peace and justice tradition of Mennonites.

The mashup of technology, justice, and higher ed in the piece got my gears grinding, so below are a few reflections which are edited from the e-mail I sent back to our provost. (Hint: My initial response to his question – Do Mennonites have something to learn here? – was a terse “Yes!”)

Social justice

This is an especially important part of the Jesuit tradition and its place within the mission of Catholic education, and Mennonite institutions can certainly get behind this appeal. The author notes the wonderful open letter that San Jose State philosophy profs recently wrote to Harvard superstar prof, Michael Sandel, on his MOOC-ified course, and I wholeheartedly agreed with their critiques and the irony of a MOOC on “justice”.

While MOOC providers have touted their platforms as holding the potential to “educate the world” (particularly in developing countries), actual usage of the platforms seems to suggest that the majority of those who complete a MOOC already have college degrees and come from developed countries.

Also, cultural sensitivity to a global classroom is not something I’ve seen seriously discussed by MOOC providers, which leads me to wonder if in these providers’ “missionary zeal” there is hiding some bad old colonialist logic. Mennonites have developed keen skills and humble attitudes when it comes to cultural sensitivity, and have an aversion to colonialism in various garbs, so that is an area I think we would have something constructive to say.

MOOCs present a justice issue with respect to faculty as well, something the author points out:

As the historian Jonathan Rees has argued… the endgame for MOOCs is the supplanting of local, in-person labor by technologically mediated remote labor. The human educator, who is the source of education’s greatest value but also its greatest expense, is meant to become dispensable.

The profit motive (in some cases) and consumeristic logic of MOOCs stands in tension with Catholic social teaching on meaningful work, and the author cites a papal encyclical on the dangers of technology’s impact on the worker:

The threat is that technology will depersonalize both the work and the worker, who is, (Pope John Paul II) argued, “the primary basis of the value of work.”

Person, not profit, is central. (Pope Francis has been speaking on this recently, as well.) Which leads us to the question of…


Critiquing the supposed “personalization” offered by MOOCs, the author points out that:

Coursera can track how each learner uses the course material and how his or her quiz performance correlates with given in-course behaviors. With that information, Coursera can guide students toward the activities that will best help them to learn: additional video lectures or a specific discussion-forum thread. I cannot customize each student’s education as precisely as Coursera claims it can. But I can personalize it, in the sense that I can help students connect what they learn in my class to who they are as people—their biographies, aspirations, shortcomings. (emphasis added)

The person disconnected from other persons does not “personalization” make! The student-teacher and student-to-student relationships are ones that exhibit the deep human need for connection and embodiment in general, and for education in particular, and that’s something MOOCs simply have not, and perhaps cannot by their very design and underwriting philosophies, facilitate in any meaningful way with their data and code alone.

Again, this is an area where I feel that Mennonites have some wisdom to share, in that the tradition has emphasized the importance of a community of character and practice in the work of Christian life together (i.e. “being church”). You cannot be a Christian apart from your Christian community, and that takes real people living in real relationships of love and accountability, something technology will likely never replace, no matter how hard it tries (and it does try mightily these days…).


Finally, the author speaks from/to the broader world of Catholic education, not just his own institution. This quote struck me:

Catholic institutions compete with one another for students, faculty, and athletics championships, but education itself, which is governed not by scarcity but by abundance, must not become a competitive endeavor. (emphasis added)

Nearly two years ago, our seminary hosted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who lectured and preached over the course of a few days on the tension between “scarcity” and “abundance” in the Bible, but also in our contemporary world. His insistence on the primacy of abundance within the salvation story of Scripture offered a powerful critique to modern systems of value. The author worries that if the logic of scarcity and profit continue to gather momentum amongst schools in his tradition:

then the project of Catholic higher education will have failed. Not only will it have abandoned personal and local education, but it will have elevated the market principles of competition and consolidation above the Catholic social-justice principles of solidarity (making decisions that benefit the common good) and subsidiarity (making decisions at the lowest and most local possible level). (emphasis added)

There are a few Mennonite higher ed institutions, of which EMU is one, currently developing pilot projects which will amount to educational opportunities being offered via collaboration between these Mennonite schools. Since technology will factor significantly into these programs, I have been a part of these conversations for nearly a year now.

All along in my work for these projects, I’ve been convinced that we have a distinct opportunity to show that Mennonites can model a better way when it comes to economies of scale that are not predicated on scarcity/competition, but on abundance/solidarity/collaboration with our sister institutions. Here’s hoping we can live up to that promise in our own little Mennonite way…