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Why is a small, highly ranked residential university like Rice — a school that prides itself on a small student/faculty ratio and that has, according to the Princeton Review, the happiest students — elbow deep in developing MOOCS?

This is the question that I inevitably get asked the minute I mention Rice’s partnerships with Coursera and Edx. And it’s a logical question, for at first glance the MOOC world, with its global delivery, open enrollment, and high attrition rates seems to be at dramatic odds with the highly selective residential four-year learning ecosystem that schools like Rice deliver to the small number of students who are accepted each year.

And yet, of course, it isn’t that simple.

How we teach is as important as what we teach, and it is for this reason that Rice faculty have, from the start, had a big appetite for experimenting with the new teaching capabilities provided by platforms like Edx and Coursera.

Just as computers and the internet suddenly created a whole range of communication opportunities that made the typewriter largely obsolete, Rice faculty want to know if and how digital delivery might make the classroom chalkboard, the overhead projector, and the power-point presentation a thing of the past — supplemented or at times replaced by tools that enrich our matriculated students’ learning experience and make face-to-face classroom time even more personalized and interactive than it is now.

In fact, faculty interest in experimentation was a substantial factor in the university’s decision to partner with not one but two platforms. And it is the possibility for radical innovation — and learning about learning in the process—that continues to capture the imaginations of our best faculty from a wide range of disciplines including chemistry, earth science, computer science, electrical engineering, religious studies, and philosophy.

To help this experimental process along, our faculty senate developed guidelines and best practices that have played a crucial role in decision-making about how we develop our digital education presence more generally.

Our students have been as interested as our faculty is helping to shape the look and feel of learning on our campus in light of new digital delivery tools—and not just by signing up for courses that are testing out flipped or blended formats. Rice students have been active collaborators and team members, working directly with faculty to develop course material for both platforms.

In fact, our platform partnerships have created an important new opportunity for students to collaborate directly with faculty—the chance for just the kind of focused research that many of our students and their parents prize and that distinguishes a Rice education.

Recognizing that their classroom experience has the potential to be transformed by new teaching techniques and tools, the student association has convened a working group to understand better students’ hopes and ambitions for their intellectual experience while at Rice.

Their goal is to help shape the academic experience of those who follow them—to be contributors to the transformation in teaching and in the learning about teaching currently underway on our campus.

Like many of its peers, Rice is interested in developing MOOCS to improve the quality of education that we deliver to our students.

But curiosity and a thirst for new knowledge — the very things that inspire people to learn in the first place—are behind this interest.

Creating an environment where a robust spirit of inquiry and intellectual risk taking thrives is core to Rice’s mission.

And so, at the most fundamental level, we are experimenting with digital delivery and online platforms to ensure that our campus is a place where assumptions are challenged rather than passively accepted, where lively questioning of the world occurs, and where new forms of knowledge and experimentation thrive.

Caroline Levander, Vice Provost of Interdisciplinary Initiatives and Digital Education, Carlson Professor in the Humanities, Professor of English

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