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MOOCs are a potential game-changer in the rapidly evolving landscape of higher education. They can affordably expand access to rigorous, effective curricula otherwise available only to a few. They can enable analytics that will offer insight into how humans learn. They may even strengthen global community and commitment to a shared future. Even leaving aside the work force demands of a technology-driven economy, all those who see educational opportunity as a social justice issue will support the ongoing MOOC experiment.

Who will lead? Most online education pioneers have come from distinguished engineering schools — Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Rice, and Stanford, to name the most prominent. Such institutions have the resources to develop technologies that can maximize MOOC availability. These universities also offer large (hundreds of students) lectures delivered by recognized professors — a MOOC-friendly format.

The leadership role is less obvious for a liberal arts college. Davidson College is a face-to-face community, where sustained faculty guidance helps extraordinary young people cultivate their talents. Our classes are interactive. We know one another’s names. What’s more, the combination of characteristics that sets Davidson apart — collaborative student research, leadership opportunities, international experiences, urban community engagement in nearby Charlotte, Division I sports, and a powerful campus culture built on trust — can’t be put online.

So why are we creating MOOCs, and how are these MOOCs distinctive? Davidson joined edX because our collaborative community enables faculty to create effective, potentially transformative courses and we want to share them. To understand why our courses work, you need to know our people.

Meet Laurie Heyer, a first-generation college student turned Ph.D. mathematician who now chairs Davidson’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. When Laurie arrived in 2000, Malcolm Campbell, a molecular biologist and national leader in education, recruited her to co-invent the first undergraduate curriculum in genomics. Later they realized that in order to transform upper-level biology courses, they would need to completely overhaul introductory biology.

Biology, according to Malcolm, “had devolved into a litany of memorization and blind acceptance of details as preached by faculty. I should know, since I did it for 16 years.” Malcolm and Laurie became colleagues in the true sense of the word. They visited each other’s classes, shared research agendas, read the best work in cognitive psychology on how kids learn, and sought advice from students and alumni. As their ideas developed, they invited Chris Paradise, a computationally savvy environmental biologist, to join their cause.

Together, and with the support of their colleagues, Malcolm, Laurie, and Chris created a course structured around the five core concepts of biology. With the incorporation of more math and computer science, and with material drawn from cutting-edge science, Malcolm explains, “students interpret the original research that led to fundamental understanding. They retain the information longer and have a better understanding of key concepts. Our students can interpret novel data and they outperform students who continue to be taught in the traditional way.” The course design and pedagogy are consistent with the changes in standardized testing in biology (e.g. GRE, MCAT, SAT and AP Biology).

As a result of this collaboration, biology students learned how to apply the math they already knew, often for the first time. Laurie developed “Calculus and Modeling,” a two-semester sequence that early on teaches the crucial modeling techniques of differential equations, emphasizes problems drawn from science and medicine, and introduces topics (multivariable calculus, linear algebra, systems of difference and differential equations, and probability) that normally aren’t broached for several semesters.

On Davidson’s campus, these courses in biology and math equip undergraduates for original research in genomics, environmental studies, applied math, economics, public health, political science and other fields. Yet equally important, our curricula use unanswered research challenges to ignite a passion for math, computer science, and quantitative research — even in students who doubt their ability — and to introduce advanced concepts and techniques earlier and with better learning outcomes.

Davidson has enabled many innovative, even unlikely, faculty collaborations that yield great courses: Literary critic Ann Fox and biologist Dave Wessner created “Representing HIV/AIDS;” mathematician Tim Chartier, who has researched questions for NASCAR racing and our men’s basketball coach Bob McKillop, has incorporated sports analytics and bracketology into “Finite Math;” and biologist Karen Bernd, chemist Cindy Hauser, and public health scientist Kristie Foley are jointly creating an NSF-funded health science course called “Breathe, Eat, Touch,” which explores the intersection of the natural sciences and epidemiology.

Davidson’s size and close-knit community made these innovative courses possible. This same environment is now yielding creative MOOC proposals including “Sustainability and the Bottom Line,” “Electronic Literature,” “Medicinal Chemistry” and “Gaming Music.” Davidson’s collaboration with edX will help us share aspects of our transformative curriculum with people around the world. We are grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the emerging environment of online instruction and welcome all partners in our collective quest to make meaningful education available to everyone who wants to learn.

Carol E. Quillen is the President of Davidson College.

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