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    Liberal arts college presidents consider the changing landscape of academe.

To MOOC or not to MOOC
January 25, 2013 - 12:06pm
So I enrolled in my first MOOC last week. Having exactly no experience with courses that are a) massive b) open or c) online, this is my novitiate. 
 
I did so not out of an entrepreneurial zeal, anticipating the revolution that sage higher education commentators across the land predict will take place before this winter’s heating bill comes due at these hoary (red) brick-and-mortar colleges of ours.
 
Simply curiosity won me over. There hasn't been such a fuss over higher ed technological innovation since they invented chalk. So I’m enrolled in a history course at the University of Virginia with hundreds of thousands of other seekers worldwide. 
 
It was, of course, Mr. Jefferson's university where a great battle was lost in the emergent saga of MOOCs, when the university's board figured out that firing one of the nation's foremost academics because she had committed to work within the confines of academic culture in choosing whether to MOOC or not to MOOC — three cheers for President Sullivan here — wasn't such a great idea.  
 
But, as I am learning in my history class, one day's loss can be another day's victory, and one apparent response to the controversy of last summer is that UVA now appears to be producing MOOCs by the dozen. 
 
I have to say, some aspects of the experience thus far are a match for the breathless reviews. This isn't Professor Chip's lecture hall, after all. Just last night, I was chatting about 18th century agricultural transformation with a more diverse group of students than could be found on any American campus. Muslims, Christians, Hindus: We are the world. 
 
And the technology itself is spiffy and impressive: Moodle on steroids.
 
My greatest disappointment may be cultural. 
 
Here I sit in my UVA beanie and smart blue blazer, awaiting the joys of the enriching university atmosphere of which I am now a part. 
 
But it turns out enrolling in a MOOC won't get me football tickets for next fall, despite my new student status. And there are other indignities: According to Student Housing, enrolling in a MOOC is “highly unlikely” to earn me an invitation to live on the Lawn next year. Apparently, initiation in the Jefferson Society is out of the question. 
 
It doesn’t hurt (much) to ask.
 
In truth, I can't make great promises for my career as a Wahoo. I’m just lurking in this MOOCish neighborhood, in the end. I've always been something of a Virginia Tech man, anyway. 
 
I’ve learned a thing or two:
 
• If the failings of lecture in the age of the iPhone weren’t abundantly clear already, the MOOCs make them more so. Limiting lectures to 10 minutes may help engage some students, but lecture by itself does not serve today’s students well. Moving the sage on the stage to a grander stage does not engage learners.
 
• Neither, as it turns out, does lecturing “one-on-one” by talking to the camera in your office. While I am flattered that “my” professor looks me straight in the eye and laughs with me at his droll jokes about the emergence of the 19th century industrial city, I am vaguely aware that this is not, in fact, Skype.
 
• Challenge-based learning — of the sort modeled by Carnegie Mellon in its Open Learning Initiative — is most likely the promise of the future for content delivery. 
 
• On-line quizzes with questions taken directly from a series of mini-lectures do not a scholar make.
 
The question for liberal arts colleges like Alma will be how to incorporate these technologies to deepen learning. Of course we must reduce our costs — and MOOCs may be a part of that strategy — but we must enhance our students’ experience as we do so, not cheapen it. 
 
For Alma, this will mean ensuring that experiences are at the heart of an Alma education (which is why we’ve just committed to support international study, one-on-one research or an internship for every single student). Not the sort of thing that happens at MOOC U.
 
My suspicion is that this new technology will be a resounding success for motivated learners from settings around the globe, just as online education itself has been a success for motivated adult learners.
 
But will the U.S. middle class begin sending its progeny to the basement instead of the academy because of the revolution the MOOCs are starting? Call me a skeptic.
 
Still, it’s all just beginning. As accreditation options emerge for the MOOCs, the landscape may shift in interesting ways.
 
We at Alma will be watching cautiously and experimenting eagerly.
 
Jeff Abernathy, President
Alma College
 

 

 

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