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Essay on the challenges posed by MOOCs to liberal arts colleges

To MOOC or Not to MOOC?
November 29, 2012

It seems at present that nearly every American college and university is wrestling with the question of whether to offer MOOCs (massive open online courses). There is something irresistibly seductive about the idea of simultaneously reaching thousands of students everywhere in the world, effectively seating them in an infinite virtual lecture hall. Indeed, the idea has taken on such allure that the University of Virginia (temporarily, as it turned out) fired its president, Teresa Sullivan, for among other things not jumping immediately on the online bandwagon.

But is Sullivan’s skepticism unwarranted? And even if it is in a given university’s case, are MOOCs appropriate for small colleges to offer for the world or to license for its students? The MOOC seems much more an extension of the large-university tradition, with its massive lecture halls seating hundreds of students per lecture, than it does of the liberal arts college, with its small, intimate classes centered on discussion. When you look, for example, at Ohio State University’s fall 2009 course offerings, you find freshman-class enrollments of 374 (Form, Function, Diversity, and Ecology), 298 (Introduction to Theater), 541 (Principles of Macroeconomics), and 671 (Introduction to Biology). All these involve students sitting together in a single lecture hall. Many liberal arts colleges have smaller numbers in their entire graduating class.

The MOOC, then, is essentially a high-tech extension of the traditional industrial-age university lecture-hall experience — and one, moreover, with an unproven financial model. Despite the apparent resonance with the traditional university lecture hall, there remain challenges for MOOCs even in the large research university environment.

They do not lead to a widely recognized credential. There is no workable revenue model in place for the startups and institutions that are funding them. While nearly $100 million has gone into MOOC funding, none of the major players — edX, Coursera, Udacity — has a business plan. (Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have pumped $60 million into edX. Coursera has raised $16 million in venture capital. Udacity has raised an undisclosed amount of money from Charles River Ventures.)

But back to the liberal arts college. When MOOCs are regarded strictly as a delivery model that is antithetical to the nature of the liberal arts college, the answer to the appropriateness question posed above is clearly “No.” But strip away the hype about building a college’s “brand” and distributing course material to a global audience and you can find in the technology underlying MOOCs something of great value to smaller institutions.

MOOCs, after all, were originally intended to provide for engagement and collaboration. The first MOOC made use of participatory-engagement tools now familiar to all liberal arts colleges: a wiki, a learning management system, blogs, Twitter, and videoconferencing. And originally, the MOOC was based on four types of activity, all key to the connectivist model:

1. Aggregate, in which students engage with lectures from experts, daily content links provided through a course newsletter, and reading content on the Web.
2. Remix, with students being encouraged to communicate with peers about content and what they are learning, through blogs, discussion boards, or online chat.
3. Repurposing, as students construct or create knowledge.
4. Feed-forward, with students encouraged to publish (and thus share their knowledge) in blogs or other “open” venues.

When it comes to MOOCs and the liberal arts college, then, everything but size matters. Take the "massive" out of "massive open online course” and you have a course delivery program/support model highly useful to liberal arts colleges for outreach and engagement. The media hype over industrial-strength instant delivery to massive audiences obscures the real value of MOOCs: the ability they bring to the smaller institution to respond to articulated strategic needs. Rather than connect your college curriculum to anonymous students who will never come to campus or be granted a credential, consider the opportunity to implement the MOOC platform to address other, very real, strategic needs. Redirect the engagement and collaboration that MOOCs in the connective mode make possible. Create connections to new audiences you want (prospective students) and audiences with which you want to ensure continued engagement (alumni).

The key here is thinking of the MOOC not in the standard way, as asynchronous video lectures and course readings, but in the connectivist way. The connectivist MOOC seeks to provide participatory space. This brand of MOOC is useful for outreach to potential students, creating meaningful connections between motivated high-school students and programs your campus has identified as strategic.

Think, for example, of connecting students in AP calculus courses with your campus’s introductory curriculum as part of the admissions recruitment culture. You can generate innumerable relationships between your faculty, your flagship programs and potential students. You can create spaces where secondary school students can interact with one another as they negotiate their college choice decision. The opportunity here for the small liberal arts college lies in the potential to encourage engaged discussion across networks, thus building awareness of what makes your campus special. Similarly, the MOOC platform and model can be used to deepen alumni relations in the context of lifelong learning.

Beyond the specific "to MOOC or not to MOOC?" question, small college leaders should consider the MOOC platform as a means to establish and sustain collaborative relationships with other institutions. In this context, such a platform can leverage the depth of course offerings available across a collaborative consortium to the benefit of all its members. Here are some examples of consortial collaborations that leverage the advantages of interinstitutional relationships while sustaining the value of the small liberal arts model:

Sunoikisis. Sunoikisis is a national consortium of classics programs that began as an initiative of the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS). In 1995, faculty from the institutions of the ACS met at Rhodes College to discuss the challenges facing classics programs at small liberal arts colleges. Sunoikisis was created to increase the academic opportunities for students at small colleges hoping to study the classics and also to support faculty development. In 2000, Sunoikisis began providing interinstitutional classics courses for students. Since its beginning, Sunoikisis has been exemplary in leveraging technology to create extended curricular offerings across multiple campuses, engaging classics students and faculty at its participating institutions. The Sunoikisis program provides students with a wider range of disciplinary coursework and interaction with student peers and faculty than would ever be possible at a single small liberal arts college. Faculty and students from 35 colleges have participated in Sunoikisis since its inception.

(Between 2006 and 2009, Sunoikisis was administered by the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, and in 2009 the Center for Hellenic Studies, in Washington, became its primary sponsor. More information is available here.)

New Paradigms. Building on the success of Sunoikisis, the Associated Colleges of the South recently embarked on an ambitious program to connect courses from various disciplines across its 16 campuses, thus broadening academic offerings not currently available at all ACS institutions. New Paradigms seeks to leverage the breadth and depth of a consortium that includes 3,000 faculty and 30,000 students, augmenting regular course offerings on a student’s home campus with faculty lectures from across the ACS delivered via multipoint videoconference technology.

Texas Languages Consortium. Last year, NITLE consulted with five institutions to help them form the Texas Languages Consortium, increasing foreign language options for their students by managing technology, faculty, and student demands. Concordia University Texas, Lubbock Christian University, Schreiner University, Texas Lutheran University, and Texas Wesleyan University are the inaugural participants. Through the programs, students will have an opportunity to enroll for courses in German, French, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish. Enrollment for the courses is managed through the students’ home campuses. Each university will provide courses through high-definition video conferencing labs with assigned faculty and proctor support.

Small colleges have been successfully developing such creative connections between students, faculty, campuses, and consortia for many years. Clearly, the value of collaboration has long been a component of their strategy. So perhaps the question for them is less when they should offer that first MOOC and more how they can use MOOC technology to continue creating and sustaining their collaborative tradition.

Bio

W. Joseph King is executive director and Michael Nanfito is associate director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE).

 

 

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