The Myth of a Great Seminar


Sometimes I peruse the debates at Intelligence Squared to see if any catch my eye. There was one this time that seemed really interesting to me. It was a debate on whether or not MOOCs are reasonable replacements for actual in-class and campus college experiences. You can see the full thing here.

This was interesting to me, because I’ve actually gone through a few MOOCs from start to finish and found them to be extremely good experiences. I was curious if there was research that would be mentioned about the effectiveness of one or the other. The debate was pretty disappointing in this regard. The main anti-MOOC argument was based around how wonderful small seminars are and that you can’t get this in a MOOC. That’s why I want to write a response to this mythical seminar.

Before talking about why I think such seminars don’t really exist in this Platonic, pristine state at any university, I want to first address the fact that the existence of seminars at all is pretty mythical. I decided to check the University of Washington’s Spring 2014 schedule. The senior level literature classes had a student range of 25-40, but most were about 30. Should I consider a 30 person class a “small seminar?” I get it. We’re a gigantic school, so I fully admit that small liberal arts colleges probably do have a lot of small seminars. But most students at most schools will graduate with few to no small seminars as their classes.

Even middle level courses like Introduction to the Theory of Literature at Ivy League schools are gigantic. That class probably has 100 students or more in it, and those are the types of courses that are offered as MOOCs. I think the comparison is a bit disingenuous when you take some capstone seminar and compare it to an “intro” MOOC. The MOOC side of the debate also responded to this criticism and pointed out that some MOOCs offer small group breakout sessions which actually do simulate small seminars. So the point doesn’t even stand.

Now that that rant is over, let’s pretend like the comparison is fair. Here are some of the myths I heard and why I think they are mostly myth (I’ll grant that maybe a few seminars run according to plan):

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the teacher is practically invisible in this mythical seminar and the students are all enraptured in high level critical conversation about Dostoevsky or some such nonsense. This seems to be the ideal the seminar aspires to. This is going to sound extremely cynical, but just how interesting can this conversation actually be? The seminar is going to be made up of an incredibly homogeneous group. Everyone is going to be about 20, never having had to make a living. They are all educated at the same school, which means they have roughly the same cultural experience, read the same books, and developed the same theories about how to analyze books.

What’s so great about this perfect conversation in comparison with a MOOC? When you take the exact same course as a MOOC, you will probably have a math professor in India, a farmer in the American midwest, a retired middle school teacher in Scotland, etc. The conversation about the same books is going to be infinitely more interesting and enlightening, because the perspectives will be so varied.

Now let’s back up a little from the perfect situation and get a little more realistic. We’ve all been to these seminar classes before. The free-flowing and enlightening conversation essentially never happens. You have some people who didn’t read the stuff. You have people who aren’t very good at articulating their thoughts on the spot. The whole thing usually turns into the professor calling on someone, a brief sentence or two is mumbled, and then the professor carries on along that point. The “conversation” is forced, and the student input is more like a prompt for the professor to riff on.

Depending on the day and material, the degree to which this is the case will vary, but I think the overall sentiment is what happens most days in most seminars. This is actually why I think a written discussion board in a MOOC is actually a far better method for discussion than a conversation in a seminar.

First off, there are hundreds of more topics and conversations going on at a discussion board than in class. This means that you can search around for conversations that you really want to participate in. Second, you have to write your thoughts down. This gives you time to figure out what you are going to say rather than awkwardly spewing out some muddled nonsense while everyone stares at you. It also gives you time to figure out what other people mean before responding to them.

It is amazing the number of times you start typing a response, and then when you go back to what was actually said you realize you misunderstood at first. Which brings me to my next point. A discussion board records all of it. You can continually return to conversations as your understanding of a topic develops. The conversation doesn’t end at the end of the hour. Once you leave the physical setting of a seminar, it probably only takes a few hours to forget most of what most people said. The discussion board allows you to go back whenever you want to recall certain parts of certain conversations.

To summarize, I think most courses most people take are not seminars, so it is pointless to use them as a main argument against MOOCs. I also think that the MOOC setup is actually a better platform for enlightening discussion in almost every respect than an actual seminar. That being said, I think the anti-MOOC side has a point when they say that communication skills are developed in class discussion. Unfortunately, even small seminars tend not to have real “discussions,” so I don’t find that compelling (along with the fact that some MOOCs are incorporating small group live chat sessions now).

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think all university education should be relegated to the online setting. I’m just saying that using some idealized small seminar as the main argument is a highly flawed way to go about it.

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2 thoughts on “The Myth of a Great Seminar

  1. Comparing MOOCs to the 100+-person classes at “Ivy League Schools” may be a mistake; despite their prestige, there’s no guarantee that the educational experience they offer isn’t worse than that found at small liberal-arts colleges, which do routinely offer courses for twenty students or fewer.

    Moreover, the in-person interaction is really necessary for a course to be successful. In the Phaedrus, Socrates describes rhetoric as a form of “inducing the soul”–the goal of the rhetorician (in this case the professor, who steers the seminar’s dialogue) is to lead the souls of her interlocutors toward the good. In order to do this, the rhetorician must interact directly with students, must observe personally what kind of soul each student has in order to determine what kinds of arguments are most likely to guide that particular student.
    You can call me old-fashioned, or accuse me of engaging in metaphysics, but I really think that something is missing from text(/internet)-based courses–that the students are not able to fully interact, the instructor not able to affect their souls in the same way.

    This may be because my experience with seminar courses was very different from yours. Almost all the humanities courses I took as an undergraduate had around six to twenty students, and all of them were wonderful experiences, constantly filled with active, productive discourse. I would never trade one of those courses for a MOOC.

    Maybe most students haven’t had the experience I have, and most seminars are filled with sucky students who don’t do the reading and don’t care. But I doubt the situation will be much better if all of those students enroll in MOOCs!

  2. The reason for comparing to the 100+ class at Yale wasn’t because the Yale course was the best educational experience I could think of. It was to compare apples to apples. That course was simultaneously a MOOC and a real class, i.e. the courses people take as MOOCs are not the seminar classes. To use a seminar in comparison to a MOOC is comparing apples to oranges.

    I agree that a good professor can steer conversation in the way you describe. I just happen to also believe that technology is reaching the point where this is in theory possible to do online (I haven’t seen an actual implementation, though).

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