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New Left Review 96, November-December 2015


carlos spoerhase

SEMINAR VERSUS MOOC

David Bromwich has recently shown how the current educational nostrum of ‘massive open online courses’, or moocs, implies a very specific idea of intellectual community: ‘At the heart of the mooc model is the idea that education is a mediated but unsocial activity. This is as strange as the idea—shared by ecstatic communities of faith—that the discovery of truth is a social but unmediated activity.’ [1] David Bromwich, ‘The Hi-Tech Mess of Higher Education’, New York Review of Books, 14 August 2014. Bromwich’s apt analysis does not tell us if there is an alternative model of higher education as a mediated and social activity. In fact there is, and it has been available at least since the late Enlightenment. At the heart of humanities teaching in most Western universities is the academic seminar. It is to this interactive, discursive form of teaching that moocs wish to become heir apparent. But where does the teaching model of the seminar come from? And how can the history of its development inform our modern understanding of higher education, and the potential for online courses within it?

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