My View: Online courses need human element to educate
Online courses are proliferating, says Douglas Rushkoff, but will really succeed when they bring humanity to learning process
January 16th, 2013
03:00 PM ET

My View: Online courses need human element to educate

By Douglas Rushkoff, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for He is a media theorist and the author of "Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age" and "Life Inc.: How Corporatism Conquered the World, and How We Can Take It Back." He is also a digital literacy advocate for His forthcoming book is "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now."

(CNN) - Education is under threat, but the Internet and the growth of Massive Open Online Courses are not to blame.

Like the arts and journalism, whose value may be difficult to measure in dollars, higher education has long been understood as a rather "soft" pursuit. And this has led people to ask fundamental questions about it:

What is learning, really? And why does it matter unless, of course, it provides a workplace skill or a license to practice? Is the whole notion of a liberal arts education obsolete or perhaps an overpriced invitation to unemployment?

The inability to answer these questions lies at the heart of universities' failure to compete with new online educational offerings - the rapidly proliferating MOOCs - as well as the failure of most Web-based schools to provide a valid alternative to the traditional four-year college.

Education is about more than acquiring skills.

When America and other industrialized nations created public schools, it was not to make better workers but happier ones. The ability to read, write and think was seen as a human right and a perquisite to good citizenship, or at least the surest way to guarantee compliant servitude from the workers of industrial society. If even the coal miner could spend some of his time off reading, he stood a chance of living a meaningful life. Moreover, his ability to read the newspaper allowed him to understand the issues of the day and to vote intelligently.

What we consider basic knowledge has grown to include science, history, the humanities and economics. So, too, has grown the time required to learn it all. While the modern college might have begun as a kind of finishing school, a way for the sons of the elite to become cultured and find one another before beginning their own careers, it eventually became an extension of public school's mandate. We go to college to become smarter and more critical thinkers while also gaining skills we might need for the work force.

Accordingly, we all wanted our sons and daughters to go to college until recently.

Read Rushkoff's full column

Filed under: MOOC • Technology • Voices
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Input Welcome

    Working Draft: Re: Letter to the President

    NOTE: Your constructive input is welcome.

    We, the people are deeply concerned about the following, which we request, as we the people, your immediate attention to if at all possible. The reason that we make this immediate request is due to the very real concern for the safety, well-being, and protection from harm of mental patients of all ages, religions, nationalities, gender, race, and ethnicity, etc., and disabilities in light of the recent tragedies that has placed a huge amount of blame on autistic persons, and mandates signed by you that could be construed to violate the rights of the mentally ill and their families.

    Historically, the mentally ill have been treated poorly in this country, much like those whom the revered civil rights leaders of our great country challenged all to provide equal opportunity, education, rights, judicial access and fairness of courts, legal systems, education, schools, jobs, housing, health care, etc.. Today, we are asking you to do the same for the mentally ill and their families, communities, and society as a whole (as all could be disabled from mental illness at some point in their lives – and historically – most are).

    While the power and politics of the system within which the responsibility for mental health practices, procedures, and policies encompasses many whom benefit and thrive, many of the patients and much of society are made to suffer the greatest of burdens and sorrow because of it.

    There are many reasons why so many suffer at the hands of the current mental health system, as you may well know. It is widely considered to be a system of care that is very deeply flawed by those whom are aware of the true realities of the way things really are in the mental health system, and/or the reasons and reasoning as to why the system is so flawed. To ask the patients to suffer through not only their illness, healing, recovery, and management of their illness at the same time that they must also suffer at the hands of this deeply flawed system places an inordinately undue and unhealthy burden and suffering on not only them, but on the whole of society as well.

    President Obama, the most obvious need that is not being considered in the last few weeks national affairs, in which you have so immediately made sweeping changes to the rights bestowed upon all of this great nation of independently minded souls, was one of the deep rooted anger that exists in the USA today, be it toward the mentally ill or gun rights issues or whatever. To single either one or whatever out for discrimination in signed action that will, in essence, limit the future and rights of every single citizen of this great nation, only serves to invite further victimization, discrimination and prejudice against all deemed to be or made to be in any group of similarly classified individuals. As outlined in the laws of this land, which you have sworn to uphold, and to which your pledge we honor as you do ours, as a united 'we the people' governed under a respected and trusted unifying law of the land, we humbly ask you to reconsider your recent actions under the same wisdom you value by your honor chosen mentors, and to whom, we thoughtfully agree to their mission of freedom and equality for all.

    The restrictions you have placed on the rights of the mentally ill are a closing of the door to the rights you honor with your pledge to defend, honor, and uphold for ALL citizens of the USA. We question the possibility now allowed that many might fall prey to those whom may wish to exploit and / or harm those with disabilities and related, or as ill guided control, or weapon of discrimination and prejudicial policies, practices, and procedures against any made to fall into this category of citizens or deemed to be in this category of citizen. This is now a great burden to all, and places many at further risk of harm, discrimination and prejudice, as you could well imagine given the need for revered leaders and movements throughout the ages.

    It is hard to imagine how banning guns can be such a problem, yet forcing the banning of guns on those at the mercy of a mental health system that is not prepared to deal fairly with such power to control, discriminate, and cause harm, exploitation, nor the loss of protected rights throughout the entire system of education, judicial, employment, military, health care, mental health care, security systems and officers, society as a whole and as individuals, families, communities, churches, non-profit groups, universities, the agencies set up to regulate all that can cause mental illness in our foods, water, medicine, practices, procedures, and policies, and ALL can be and ARE AT MERCY of this type illness and treatment without legal representation and supports, and a fair and equal judicial system, that this could truly be ok.

    Therefore, we the people, request humbly and with post haste to amend to these signed actions provisions that will allow for the furthering of reasoning throughout all levels of the greatest government system put in place by the people, for the people, and for which we are all pledged to honor and protect and defend as USA citizens of this great and wonderful land of which we know, that you, our chosen leader, will be able to see the wisdom of your forefathers and revered leaders and mentors as being the only true way for our nation to be for the people, by the people. Thank you and God Bless you in your leadership and wisdom as you guide this grand nation through four more years of being a nation built on the wisdom of many.

    Sincerely and with Deepest Respect,

    'We the People', USA
    January 20, 2013

    January 21, 2013 at 6:23 am |
  2. Portland tony

    Because we were basically a nation of immigrants with varying languages and a high percentage of illiteracy, the historical goal of education in this country was the teaching of the three "R"s.....Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. The goals were to allow new citizens to communicate and carry on commerce. The wealthy could afford to follow a liberal arts education since they were not supposed to work. Skilled trades were learned through apprenticeship programs and some specialty colleges for medicine, religion, military and law. It's hard to believe anyone thought about independent thought or citizenship during the early years of education here in America.

    January 17, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
    • Alice in PA

      "The goals were to allow new citizens to communicate and carry on commerce."
      "t's hard to believe anyone thought about independent thought or citizenship during the early years of education here in America."
      Communicating and carrying on commerce are enormous parts of being a citizen.

      And yes, advocates for public education were interested in citizenship and independent thought. They knew that these are stepping stones to increased economic or social standing.

      January 17, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
  3. Mimi Willoughby

    I totally agree.

    January 16, 2013 at 3:24 pm |