Listen: Historian Tim Burke Discusses the Merits of MOOCs

Radio Times (WHYY): Open Online Courses

In a wide-ranging discussion on WHYY's Radio Times, Professor of History Tim Burke expressed both enthusiasm for - and reservations of - Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). According to Burke, allowing thousands of people to partake in a college course for free over the Internet may have some immediate benefits within the field of higher education.

"For any of us in academia, for one, it solves a problem that I think has cost us a lot in the public sphere, and that is that most of the public doesn't know what goes on inside higher education," he says.  "If we can show people what we do - that there's a high level of professionalism in it, that it's hard, that there's a reason to be a full time student - then that's great."

Successful completion of a MOOC often results in a certificate or other acknowledgement, but MOOCs generally do not count toward credit at their sponsoring institutions.  Going forward, Burke thinks this model will need to be examined.

"We have to decide, should it be possible for everybody to be credentialed?  What will be the value of that credential if we're producing it in a form where everybody can acquire it?" Burke asks.

Another challenge facing MOOCs, Burke believes, is that online courses may not be able to replicate the type of learning that occurs naturally in the classroom.

"Where they often hit an obstacle is that it's just hard to learn, in some sense, either by yourself or with a kind of mediated sociality, where it's not that face-to-face contact," he says.  "In online cultures in general, they're certainly given to argument. They may not be vigorously given to developing the rich sorts of differences we can find when we're face-to-face with people."

A cultural historian, Burke is an authority on popular culture in America and the history of Africa, with a special interest in modern imperialism and the nations of Zimbabwe and South Africa.  Burke is the author of Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Duke University Press, 1996) and the co-author of Saturday Morning Fever: Growing Up With Cartoon Culture (St. Martin's Griffin, 1999). He is currently completing a book on individual experience and agency in 20th-century Zimbabwe, and has maintained the popular blog, Easily Distracted, since Nov. 2002.