MOOCS and the Socratic Method

MOOC concept map

Last week in class I did a rapid response report with a group of LIS students to answer the question, “what is a MOOC”? I case you haven’t heard of them, MOOC stands for “Massive Open Online Course.” As I our group explained in the report,

MOOCs or Massive Online Open Courses are a response to an issue in the field of education where information and resources are no longer a scarcity. Kop (2011) explains that “emergent technologies…disrupt the notion that learning should be controlled by educators and educational institutions as information and ‘knowledgeable others’ are readily available on online networks” (2). MOOCs are one way that educational institutions are responding to this critique. They are an educational platform that invites free online engagement around an area of interest, usually facilitated by an expert in the field. MOOCs implicitly acknowledge the sheer quantity of readily available information by “bypass[ing] the boundaries, including costs, of traditional gatekeeping systems of knowledge-making and dissemination” (McAuley 32). They offer a collaborative learning experience that emphasizes conversation theory, participation, network connections, and the practice of life long learning. The following review of the literature offers an overview of issues and debates surrounding this developing educational form.

In other words, MOOCS are an educational tool that allows huge groups of people (sometimes numbering in the thousands) to come together over an shared area of interest and learn. As I mentioned in the quote above, I would argue that this model rests implicitly on conversation theory, or the idea that knowledge is created through dialogue. As a former English major, I am fairly comfortable with this idea; if course we can learn about the text from discussing aspects of it. Indeed, English is a somewhat relativist  discipline, because one person’s interpretation of a work can be as valid as a differing view, so long as they are both supported by evidence from the text.

In fact, it is this very aspect of multiple perspectives that makes the MOOC model of education both exciting and problematic. In a class of hundreds asynchronous  posting to blogs and discussion boards, there is no lack of conversation, and therefore, according to conversation theory, tons of knowledge should be created. However, many educational institutions question the validity of those conversations, because the participants may not know much about the topic. Additionally, many MOOC participants find the sheer amount of conversation and the volume of knowledge overwhelming, turing the benefit of an open environment into a possible barrier to learning.

At first, this struck me as an essential flaw in the MOOC model, however, upon further reflection, I realized that the uncertainty and information overload produced might not be such a bad thing. Take, for example, the Socratic Method. The Greek philosopher Socrates certainty engaged in conversation with people, but his dialogues didn’t necessarily produce knowledge as much as they produced uncertainty. These conversations about the definition of friendship or love seem to rest on the premise that there is a discoverable definition of these words, yet that promise never comes to fruition. Instead, one’s previously held beliefs are shaken and undermined. This leads to the great Socratic irony “I know only that I know nothing.” This attitude then becomes a good thing; uncertainty facilitates knowledge by  forcing people to reexamine what they think they know and to be aware of (and open to) all the things they don’t. If this is what MOOCs do, than even their “downsides” may actually be an asset to anyone interested in continued learning.


Carroll, C., Crowley, J., Helson, S., Lambson, E., Peterson, A., & Prato, S. (2012). Rapid Report: Massive Open Online Courses. For IST511. Syracuse University iSchool.