The recent ascendance of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, has generated considerable enthusiasm among college faculty members and administrators. But it has also created a great deal of anxiety, as Nathan Heller notes in his recent article “Laptop U,” which appeared in the May 20 edition of The New Yorker. Among their other concerns—the elevation of star professors at the expense of other faculty, the difficulty of evaluating student learning, the elimination of large numbers of academic jobs—skeptics fear that MOOCs will diminish if not eliminate in-class discussion. For academics like Harvard professor Peter Burgard,
“College education in general is sitting in a classroom with students, and preferably with few enough students that you can have real interaction, and really digging into and exploring a knotty topic—a difficult image, a fascinating text, whatever. That’s what’s exciting. There’s a chemistry to it that simply cannot be replicated online.”
I sympathize with these sentiments, and I worry about the impact of MOOCs on the teaching and learning that occur in the most stimulating college classrooms. And yet I also feel that MOOC detractors have not stated their objections with the necessary precision. What specific work does in-class discussion do? And what in particular is lost if it is not a central element of education? The critics of large-scale online courses rarely provide cogent answers to these questions.
The current debate would profit, I think, from a wider frame of reference, one that might throw into relief some of the premises that animate the skeptics’ position. One far-flung but potentially illuminating starting point occurred to me as I was reading Brian Silverstein’s book Islam and Modernity in Turkey (2011), which examines one Istanbul-based branch of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. Like other adherents of Sufism, Naqshbandis rely on a series of devotional techniques to cultivate their habits and sensibilities as observant Muslims. Since the emergence of the order in the fourteenth century, these techniques have been grounded in the practice and reasoning of the Islamic tradition. In the past two decades, however, they have also come to be articulated with mass media technologies in telling ways.
One of the most important means of cultivating Islamic devotion for Turkish Naqshbandis is the sohbet, which Silverstein translates as “companionship-in-conversation.” The sohbet is typically structured around the oral reading and explication of hadith (accounts of the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) by a sheikh, a mature master who acts as a model and guide for the order’s rank-and-file disciples. The content of the sheikh’s discourse—that is, the hadith he recites and the interpretation he provides—certainly furthers the spiritual knowledge of the devotees who attend him. But this aspect of the sohbet is ultimately less significant than the social relationships that are formed during the skeikh’s address. For many Naqshbandis, the sohbet is first and foremost a means of creating the companionships that help to form the dispositions, emotions, and habits of pious Muslim selves.
In Silverstein’s analysis, the sohbet is embedded in both the Islamic and broadly Aristotelian traditions. On the one hand, Naqshbandis trace the sohbet to the exemplary practices of the Prophet Muhammad, who also sought to impart his teachings through companionship and conversation with his disciples. In the process, Naqshbandis attribute particular authority to the oral—as opposed to written or scriptural—transmission of ethical instruction, a stance that accords with the centrality of spoken revelation and recitation in Islam more generally. For these and other reasons, Naqshbandis do not regard their devotion as opposed to Sunni Muslim orthodoxy, a point that distinguishes them from some other Sufi orders (not to mention romantic Western accounts of Sufi mysticism).
On the other hand, Naqshbandis follow classical Greek thinkers, including Aristotle, in conceiving and pursuing the sohbet as a mode of ethical action. Rather than merely conveying a set of ideas or beliefs, the sohbet is a “spiritual exercise” that forms and molds practitioners’ sensibilities in line with a particular vision of the virtuous life. When viewed in this light, communal conversations with a sheikh provide one key means for disciples to work on themselves, to train their emotions and desires, so that they might become more pious in the eyes of God. Yet individual devotees do not pursue such self-cultivation in isolation. Instead, the sohbet harnesses social relations so that the sheikh and his disciples, in and through their companionship, come to influence one another’s dispositions in edifying ways. The sohbet thereby constitutes, to use Silverstein’s apt phrase, a “discipline of presence.” It is a project of concerted ethical self-formation that relies heavily on oral, face-to-face interaction.
Significantly, this mode of devotion has been transformed as Naqshbandis have engaged more intensively with mass media technologies. In particular, the branch of the order studied by Silverstein launched its own radio station in 1994. In addition to other kinds of programming, it regularly broadcast live and pre-recorded sohbets of several prominent sheikhs. At least in the station’s early years, these sohbets drew sizable audiences. Many of the order’s adherents eventually came to perceive, however, that the radio sohbets lacked the compelling intimacy and force of their face-to-face counterparts. Although listeners appreciated the fact that the sohbets were now more widely accessible, many nevertheless lamented that disciples were no longer in the oral, face-to-face presence of the sheikh or, for that matter, a community of fellow devotees. Moreover, many of them came to regard the radio sohbets less as a spiritual exercise and more as a “service” (hizmet) that injected Islamic informational content into a wider public sphere.
In short, mass media transmission had substantially altered the social relations and contexts that had been central to the sohbet’s status as a discipline of presence. Many Naqshbandis came to question radio sohbets’ ability to mold their sensibilities as Muslims, and they worried about the effects that this transformation of sheiks’ authority, and the order’s sociability, would have on its members’ ethical conduct.
There are, to be sure, several obvious differences we could highlight between Naqshbandi devotion and American higher education. Perhaps above all, Naqshbandis are engaged in practices that we commonly define as “religious,” while American professors and students are participating in a process that we widely regard as “secular” and “liberal.” And yet we can also observe important parallels between the two groups’ activities and the concerns that at least some of their members express about mass mediation. In particular, some members of both groups attribute particular importance to the face-to-face discourse that occurs between a figure of spiritual or intellectual authority and her or his attendees. Some members of both groups also feel that the quality of their devotional or educational practice is lessened when it is channeled into mass media formats that diminish the role of face-to-face discourse.
This comparison has important implications for MOOC skeptics and, perhaps, for all of us who participate in American higher education. In particular, it suggests that college instruction is not only or even primarily a process of conveying information (ideas, concepts, arguments, frameworks, theories, etc.) from teachers to students. Rather, it is a mode of ethical self-formation like the sohbet, one that does not merely form “educated” habits and sensibilities, but one works best through particular modes of oral, face-to-face intercourse. In other words, it too is a discipline of presence.
If that is the case, then there is reason to be concerned about the proliferation of large-scale online education. It threatens to undercut the very social relations and modes of discourse through which educated sensibilities, at least in favorable circumstances, have been cultivated in the past. But this line of argument then makes it incumbent on MOOC skeptics to outline their vision of the virtuous life, to specify the ethical aims that in their estimation guide (or should guide) American higher education. In the end, then, it is not enough for the critics of MOOCs to praise the “chemistry” of in-class discussion. They must also clarify the philosophical, even “spiritual” project for which such chemistry is to be mobilized.