The Psychology of Dictatorship

Can psychology deliver us from the Hitlers of the world?

Myths, MOOCS, and Malls

Our Social Nature Limits The Success of Online Universities and 'Malls'

 

                “The end of the university is here. No more sitting in classes listening to lectures. No more university buildings with stone towers. No need for that! MOOCS and the new online universities are taking over!”

                “Really? So you think the university is finished?”

                “Of course the university is finished!  It’s like brick and mortar shopping malls, finished! Everything is going to be sold online. Amazon is the way of the future! You are a psychologist, you should know that!”

                “Everything online?”

                “Exactly, everything online! You just sit behind your computer and the university comes to you, all the courses come to you. You click a button, and all the choices in every shopping mall are available to you. You don’t have to fight through crowded malls. You don’t need to be on a physical campus with other students. Online – that’s where it’s at!”

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                This is how a neighbor tried to explain the end of the traditional university and the brick and mortar shopping mall to me: everything will be online! There are now thousands of people studying for degrees to teach online, because they have been persuaded to believe this is the future of education: online. Universities are investing in MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) and encouraging faculty to move their teaching materials online. Again and again, it is repeated that the ‘old ways in education are dead’ and we need to change, because online is ‘where it’s at’.

                Just as the physical university is supposed to be dead, the physical mall has apparently come to an end. Why would people go to a physical mall when they can shop online?  No reason at all! Amazon is showing the way. Everybody will be shopping online, even for their food. Amazon will have trucks roaming your neighborhood, full of goods that computer programs tell us will be asked for by you and your neighbors, and as soon it you make a request, a truck that is already roaming the roads near you will head to your home. Fresh eggs and milk and new shoes and shirts and jeans and everything else will be at your doorstep as soon as you make a wish and click the computer button. The new treadmill they deliver will be all you need to keep you fit. No need to leave your home, for shopping or for exercise.

                Of course, entertainment will also all be online and delivered directly to your home. All the films and music and everything else you ever need to keep you entertained will be delivered online. This means that cinemas and concert halls and all those other physical spaces for gathering with other people will cease to exist. No need for them. Just like the physical university and the mall, the concert hall and the cinema are things of the past. Forget them.

                And forget sports stadiums too! Nobody wants to be crammed into a crowded sports stadium to watch a sports game live, when you can get a spectacular view sitting right there in your own living room watching your flat-screen TV. Sports stadiums are so 20th century.

                Does this make sense to me as a psychologist? No, it makes no sense at all!

                Psychological research endorses what Aristotle pointed out about 2,500 years ago: humans are social animals. Of course university campuses will continue to thrive, because young people are strongly motivated to be with other young people and with professors, to interact with them directly, and to learn through social interactions. Learning at university takes place through a collective process. I too have taken part in making a MOOC, and preparing materials for online teaching, but I am absolutely sure that such materials will not replace the learning that takes place when I directly interact with students. Such materials can supplement the traditional teaching I do, just as online shopping can supplement traditional shopping.

                People go shopping in traditional shops and malls because they enjoy the social experience of shopping, being with and interacting with other people while they shop. The pleasure of social shopping is intense. Ask yourself why you go to the gym where others are exercising, instead of using the treadmill by yourself alone at home?  Why do you go to a cinema or a concert hall, when you could watch a film or listen to music alone at home?  Why do we cram into a stadium with tens of thousands of other people to watch a sports game? Humans are first and foremost social beings – we punish people by isolating them! Children are ‘grounded’ and isolated from their friends as punishment. Convicted criminals are placed in jails apart from the rest of society as punishment. Forcing people to be alone is a punishment. Keep that in mind when you consider ‘online’ as the solution to the shortcomings of traditional universities. 

                The social experience of participating in activities with others present adds to our learning and to our enjoyment; this goes beyond simple, one-dimensional measures of ‘efficacy’. It may well be that the sound system you have at home for listening to music actually gets you better quality sound, but the excitement of being in a crowded concert hall is something else!  Watching a movie with a thousand other people, sensing their emotional reactions to the film, gives you a far richer experience! You might get a better view of the sports game watching it at home on your own TV, but the thrill of being with tens of thousands of other people watching a live game in a stadium is something else!

                With all the hype about Amazon, have you noticed that Amazon profits are miniscule? With all the hype about online teaching, have you noticed very few people actually enjoy online courses? With all the hype about MOOCS, have you noticed that according to the scant data actually made public, students in MOOCS classes have performed poorly (in a test of courses developed by the Silicon Valley company Udacity, San Jose State University announced the results of MOOCS spring term 2013 courses:  pass rate 50.5 percent elementary statistics, 25.4 percent in college algebra; 23.8 percent in entry-level mathematics)? Online sales of goods and services are still a very small piece of the total pie. There is a limit to how much they can grow, and this limit is set by our social nature. We are motivated to interact with others, and to learn, shop, to be entertained, and do just about everything else with others, rather than in isolation with a computer. We do better in social groups. Over a century ago social psychologists discovered that when people carry out tasks in the presence of others, they get pushed to do better. Since then we have learned that motivation is influenced by many factors, but the bottom line is that on most tasks we both do better working in groups and enjoy the tasks more.

                Of course working adults and many other groups will find MOOCS convenient and more affordable, but the vast majority of 18-22 year olds will prefer to be on campus, learning through social interactions with others. Of course online course will have some benefits, but we should avoid a situation where rich universities maintain their small face-to-face classes, but make MOOCS for the poor - celebrating online education as a great invention for the poor, and maintaining their campuses for the rich. 

                There is an urgent need for reform in universities, but the change will not come by trying to shift everything online. University reform has to come by dealing with some of the basic problems, such as administrative bloat and costs http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/25198-why-are-campus-administr...

                  There are already some alternative models being tested. The best example of such higher education experiments that I know about is the MINERVA PROJECT based in San Francisco (look up the detail on their website, http://www.minervaproject.com).  This is a truly exciting project. Students will be trained to serve as future leaders in the global context, through an academically rigorous program with relatively low tuition. I am particularly impressed with the courage and vision of the MINERVA Project, and looking forward to what their students will produce in programs such as ‘designing societies’. This is value for money education, through the WISE use of new technologies. This is not part of a faddish rush to get everything online.

                So when I am told that ‘the university is finished’, I hope it means that more and more MINERVA Projects are coming, rather than more myths about MOOCS and malls are coming.  

Fathali M. Moghaddam, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology and the director of the Conflict Resolution Program, Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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