Early 20th century MOOCs

It is always enlightening to see how some of the same breathless optimism derived from our newest innovations, the claims that perennial problems are going to be solved at last, were also derived from innovations a century or more old, when they were new. In particular, I was struck by Kevin Birmingham’s account (in his remarkable book on the genesis of James Joyce’s Ulysses) of the early days of Random House, and its Modern Library series:

Both within and beyond universities, people began thinking that certain books illuminated eternal features of the human condition. They didn’t demand expertise — one didn’t need to speak classical Greek or read all of Plato to benefit from The Republic — all they demanded was, as [Professor John] Erskine put it, “a comfortable chair and a good light.” […]

The Modern Library offered commodified prestige with the illusion of self-reliance. Readers could have the benefits of institutional culture without the institutions. They could rise above the masses by purchasing a dozen inexpensive books.

Replace “good light” by “fast internet connection”, and you have the promise of Coursera. Of course, that jibes well with the feelings that many skeptics have, who wonder why we need new technology to democratise education. As long as you’re lecturing to masses, where personal feedback is logistically impossible, doesn’t it suffice to have a well-stocked library?

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