FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 04/29/2013

Your Brain . . . On MOOCS

April 10, 2013    |    Volume 6, Issue 7

Faith + Ideas = an e-conversation with the faculty of Gordon College

By Bryan C. Auday

Not long ago, I was standing inside an extraordinary room. Students from my neuroscience seminar were with me as we explored what many believe to be some of the most complex matter in the universe. In ordinary Tupperware containers filled with formaldehyde, we saw over 3,000 human brains that had been donated to this repository, the largest brain bank in the world housed not far from our campus at the Harvard Brain Bank.

Brain banks serve a critical role for the neuroscience community. By providing human tissue (which by law cannot be sold or traded) to researchers, many have begun to understand the disordered mind brought on by neurological disease and illness.

But the room where we stood did not just contain dead brains. There were living brains as well, belonging to the students in my course. We were on a field experience to help us understand the “big picture” of how brain science works in solving complex problems on a world stage. During our visit, we also received a lesson in neuro-anatomy with a brain that had been in a living person just 36 hours earlier. Most of us left the room with eyes wide open and jaws dragging on the floor.

A few weeks later, we stood in another room, just as unique as the first. Only twelve feet deep and wide, its entrance was through a vault-like door easily two feet thick. The room was designed to be electrically shielded, impervious to all external sources of magnetic fields, and cost one million dollars to build—just for the room. It was built to hold the newest version of the magnetoencephalograph (MEG), a brain-imaging device used to peek inside the brain and measure electrophysiological activity correlated with mental events. As guests of the nearby McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, we listened with awe to our guide, a neuroscientist whose enthusiasm for brain science was contagious. The encounter helped us understand the role technology can play in discovering how the mind works, and how such research can benefit people and society.

Back on our own campus, hidden between a classroom and a hallway that few would even know exists, is another room with a 32-channel EEG brain imaging system, one that enables aspiring scientists to plan and conduct their own research projects on the neuro-physiological aspects of language, memory, decision making and other cognitive processes. Many young researchers here, using this equipment, have co-authored presentations they later give at professional conferences across the country. Even now, a new brain-imaging lab is being built on the third floor of our science center, which will triple the size of our space so that more scholars—veteran and novice alike—may participate in research.

These real time lessons in the labs make a difference, especially as discussions about the future of higher education increasingly point to online learning. Certainly, web-based online education, or that which involves massive open online courses known as MOOCs, offers unique glimpses into particular topics and aids for specific lifestyles. Since all a student needs for an online course is a computer and a checkbook, many such courses could be completed without ever leaving home.

But to what end? To be clear, I’m not against online education. I know it can provide a quality education at a reduced cost and unprecedented convenience. In my own field, I know technological partnerships can foster real change and new discoveries. Within this new educational delivery system, though, I wonder how students will be affected in terms of learning outcomes. What potential losses and gains come with traditional versus online education?

It’s a concern not only to institutions that provide educational experiences, but to consumers as well. We all want to produce the best ‘product’ for the buck.

So while the academy of higher education is prudent to explore other vehicles for delivering education—such as MOOCs—I hope we aren’t too quick to let go of some of the best practices of traditional education. Meeting people face-to-face who belong to a learning community can be intimate and infectious, instilling enthusiasm for the intellectually curious.

Because as much as I try, I just can’t envision how my neuroscience seminar could be taught online. I suppose students could be directed to a website or a YouTube video rather than visit a lab or interact with a scientist and the tools they use for research. But a real brain on a MOOC? It just doesn’t smell or feel the same.

Bryan C. Auday is professor of psychology and neuroscience at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He and his family live in Beverly, MA.


Bryan Auday