Bill Gates has spoken: higher education, especially the kind offered by community colleges, would be greatly improved by the adoption of massive open online courses (MOOCs).

As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Gates suggests colleges adopt the “flipped MOOC” model for their courses, providing students with canned pre-recorded lectures to “free up” classroom time for homework assistance. He believes the flipped MOOC may be a way for instructors to integrate technology and make community colleges more efficient.

As a community college professor, I have significant concerns about this. The idea of a flipped MOOC taking the place of a live lecturer could pose problems for millions of students who require more direct guidance and interaction.

Studies showstudents in community colleges face challenges adapting to online learning. The flipped MOOC model could also raise other concerns for students and for professors:

Concern #1: Why reproduce the lecture model in video form?

The lecture as a form of instruction has been under attack for some time. The Tomorrow’s College “Don’t Lecture Me” series produced by American Media Works is a multi-pronged attack on the traditional lecture format.

Psychology Today published a now infamous article entitled “Lectures Suck,” which argues “books do a good job of communicating the physics concepts. Let the books do their job. Lectures should do something else.”

In the live lecture, the professor can directly interact with and engage her students. It seems contradictory to blame lectures for not helping students learn, but then require students to watch lectures anyway. A flipped lecture is still a lecture. This also ignores the reality that reading abilities are so varied in the average classroom, many students cannot take advantage of the “good job” books do.

In my own classroom, countless hours could be spent simply explaining the reading assignments, so much so that there may not be time for the “lecture” part, let alone time to assist in writing assignments, as the flipped model suggests.

Concern #2: Pre-recorded lectures limit knowledge at community colleges.

Students should learn from a variety of styles and interpretations. In the working world, they will need to adapt to constantly changing conditions, incorporate new ideas into their body of knowledge and learn to navigate through different and often opposing interpretations, mostly through face-to-face interactions.

Reliance on recorded lectures may not allow faculty to expand upon course content based on their own knowledge and experience, which places arbitrary limits upon what any given course can incorporate. Additionally, an argument could be made that receiving information via a pre-recorded lecture does not equal education.

MOOCs may not benefit either students or educators. As an op-ed in The New York Times concluded, “The professor [of a MOOC] is, in most cases, out of students’ reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon.”

Concern #3: Flipped MOOC students could lose important interpersonal skills.

The kinds of skills democratic societies rely on, in fact.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of education is the way students face the intersection of different beliefs and experiences to expand their own understanding through face-to-face interactions.

In the comments section of The Chronicle article, a submission from “Phoenicia” struck me. She wrote:

“In the history MOOC which I took, it became clearer and clearer to me as we studied 20th century totalitarianism, that the most important thing we teach in college is respectful dialogue. That passionate give and take which generates creative ideas and discoveries is the hallmark of Democracy… People have to learn how to respectfully disagree and to enjoy learning from different points of view. When that kind of communal learning happens, the classroom naturally generates joy and discovery. That kind of learning is pure delight. It develops the passion for ideas and work that creates life-long devotion to research and teaching. That Democratic learning can transform lives.”

This thoughtful comment underscores other concerns about the trend toward more online learning, even in a hybrid, flipped MOOC scenario. Though it certainly offers great opportunities for many students, what will be the collateral damage of online learning? Will we lose an already tenuous sense of community and connection in our society if we further atomize education?

A judicious use of technology in classrooms should inform our approach to MOOCs, flipped or not. The concerns raised here should be uppermost in our minds as we listen to the ideas of visionaries like Bill Gates and try to use our new technologies wisely rather than rashly.

TCF would like to continue the discussion of MOOCs and technology in education in a special Blog of the Century series. Stay tuned for more posts on the subject.