I have found myself at a delicate nexus this week.  I facilitated a faculty discussion on active learning; prepared a draft of a proposal to teach a MOOC through Brown; helped my oldest son to submit his college application; and, of course, went about my usual job of running my own university classes.  This particular confluence of events prompted me to reflect a bit more deeply about the very nature of teaching and learning and the “value added” (and yes, the monetary cost) of face-to-face college instruction.

I have never felt that MOOCs (massive open online courses, such as found at Coursera) threaten the future of higher education.  They are primarily “information delivery” platforms, with some very limited interactive abilities, that help to disseminate knowledge widely.  This strikes me as largely a good thing, even if it does have costs.  Yes, MOOCs may threaten institutions of higher learning that more or less structure their classes as “information delivery” platforms, but this strikes me largely as a good thing: for the sometimes extraordinary price that families pay, they should be getting more than information delivery.

In the past I have most often articulated the “value added” of the face-to-face classroom as providing the opportunity for dialogue and critique.  It is one thing to think that one has “learned” as a reader or auditor, but it is another to actively engage it.  Classrooms, and the writing assignments associated with them, are labs of self-formation in which students are given the opportunity to develop habits of mind through an ongoing interaction with the professor and their classmates.  They can take advantage of this opportunity to a greater or lesser degree, but the option is there to get something that no MOOC can ever deliver.  (Or, at least not yet.)

This week, though, I have begun to think more about the relationships involved in classroom teaching, both among students and between students and the teacher.  A real relationship, though – the deep transformative kind – involves some degree of vulnerability.  As a student, the more open I become – the more I am able to really hear the critiques and suggestions of my teacher and then to acknowledge and grapple with my weaknesses in conversation with others – the more and faster I am able to learn.  As a professor, the more open I am to students’ needs and concerns – to listening to their own critiques of my teaching – the more effective I will be.  Indeed, some of the most rewarding moments I’ve had as a teacher has been precisely when I open up and make myself vulnerable to my students.

Easier said than done, though.  I do not want to make myself open and vulnerable to all of my students each semester; even the thought of it is frightening and exhausting.  Nor, though, would doing so be professional.  There is a line between student and professor that I believe is important to maintain, even if it is often fuzzy.  The trick is finding it.

We don’t talk much about vulnerability in higher education, in large measure, I suspect, because it can bring with it the kind of overtones that can lead straight to thoughts of sexual harassment and disciplinary action.  But I think that the role that vulnerability plays in education should not be a taboo topic.  It is at the heart of what distinguishes the MOOC from the classroom.