07/08/2013 11:04 BST | Updated 06/10/2013 06:12 BST

MOOCs and the Liberal Arts: Threat or Opportunity?

Despite the ugly acronym, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are the talk of higher education today. Most of the debate centres on the quality of the free online courses with mega-enrolment figures offered by the likes of Coursera, Udacity, edX, FutureLearn, and OpenupEd. MOOCs elicit a double-edged fear: either that they are too dumbed-down to justify the hype or that they might be successful enough to revolutionise the whole sector. In the latter scenario, bricks and mortar universities reliant upon the large lecture hall are in for a rude shock. But if MOOCs do indeed transform the delivery of higher learning and knowledge what are the implications for the transmission of the liberal arts, namely the non-Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines?

MOOCs hinge on the scalability of knowledge dissemination. Online survey courses with gigantic student numbers are by this token just as plausible for eighteenth-century French literature as for Physics 101. Lectures can be watched by all, while (providing there are sufficient resources) students are then sub-divided into smaller groups for peer work, group discussion, and assessment. What is not scalable, of course, is individual critique and feedback, which require the kind of student/staff ratio and personal interaction that only real-world universities can provide.

Hence it is perfectly plausible to imagine that, save for the premier and best-funded institutions (who in fact are among the greatest backers of MOOCS), the majority of colleges and universities will outsource lecturing while specialising instead on individual feedback and mentoring. This division of labour is on the cards in the US where state-funded universities are developing partnerships with various MOOC providers. The natural progression - supported by cost-conscious politicians - is to allow students to earn credits from these extremely cheap content providers. It is precisely this move towards an external supply of university content that constitutes a threat as well as an opportunity for the dissemination of the liberal arts.

To clarify matters it is helpful to distinguish liberal arts understood as specific content - one tradition treats it as the study of great books - from liberal arts as a philosophy of learning via argument and enquiry. In terms of delivering the liberal arts canon, MOOCs offer an unprecedented opportunity. Students of all means and abilities will be able to avail themselves of survey courses designed and taught by the foremost authorities, an example being the Justice course offered by Harvard's Michael Sandel. Opening the doors of the academy like this will allow a cohort of students from across the globe to engage with the great ideas and timeless concepts inherent in a liberal arts education.

This will be a boon to students from lower-ranked institutions but not to their faculty, who will be less called upon to offer their own subject expertise. Therein lies the threat posed by MOOCs to the liberal arts. Teaching the content of a liberal arts education could become the preserve of a small cadre of online educational superstars housed at the great universities that have the means to recruit them and provide support to develop top-notch courses. One risk here is that the interpretation of the subject matter could become more conformist and narrow as the number of professionals in the field dwindles. MOOCs could thus reinforce (already quite rigid) academic hierarchies to the detriment of plurality as faculty at San Jose State have pointed out.

More importantly, if most teaching takes the form of MOOCs, something will be lost in terms of the philosophy of learning aspect of the liberal arts. Reducing teaching staff in those subjects to the status of conduits for feedback constitutes a hollowing out of the educational experience. Students do not learn the reflexes of critical argument and enquiry simply by acquiring content. It is the interaction with faculty inside and outside the classroom - during office hours, at informal departmental events, and at guest talks - that helps inculcate this approach to learning. Of course, such a disposition can be acquired independently by a highly motivated student. However, the university campus with its on-site presence of those trained in and continuously studying the liberal arts is a uniquely stimulating environment for nurturing an enthusiasm for learning.

This analysis is not based on a romanticised vision of higher education. As a recent study has shown, even elite colleges devoted to the liberal arts can be criticised for exposing students to esoteric disciplinary jargon and developing an unhealthy cult of campus exceptionalism. MOOCs could be a corrective and beneficial influence in this regard by making the content of elite institutions accessible to all. Yet the triumph of massive online courses will undoubtedly come at a cost by rarefying actual contact with scholars of the liberal arts and by making its teaching the preserve of an ever smaller caste.