Imagine a high school student in China. His or her family is sufficiently affluent to support an American college education in the United States. Question: Would he or she prefer to learn via MOOCs or in residence at an American institution?
More pointedly, let's say this student is given the option of taking MOOCs produced by the very top American institutions - MIT or Stanford - or attending a somewhat less prestigious institution such as Tufts University. Which would he or she choose?
To be in residence at Tufts. Why? Because that student understands that improving social and professional prospects involves more than mastering bodies of knowledge. It also involves developing social capital, which is best, or only, acquired in a residential environment.
It is worth remembering this hypothetical as the educational world becomes besotted with MOOCs. There will always be a place for residential colleges and universities that confer valuable social capital on their students. This cannot be conferred any other way.
What is actually rearing its head in all the talk about MOOCs is the widening disparity between the education of elites and non-elites in our culture, between a premium delivery of education and a Walmart delivery of education. Do we want to endorse this? Are we comfortable consigning a large percentage of our citizenry to an education that confers no social capital and thus limits their opportunities and growth? It is worth remembering this question as we move ahead.