• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


More on MOOCs and Liberal Arts Education

How institutions might evaluate MOOCs.

April 24, 2013

Yesterday I wrote about how MOOCs (broadly interpreted, not literally defined) could enrich a liberal arts education from the proverbial 10,000-feet level. Today I would like to drop down several thousand feet in thought to share how an institution might effectuate such programming. It begins with a genuine and enthusiastic collaboration among administrators -- provost and his/her officers (centers of teaching excellence, VPs of undergraduate education, etc.); information technology specialists, especially in academic technology sectors; academic librarians -- and faculty.  Lots and lots of faculty, from the governance level (faculty senates, for example) and most particularly deans, department chairs right down to individually inspired members. With all of the challenges traditional not-for-profit liberal arts education face currently, if ever there was a a time for all of these parties to work together toward the common goal -- the enhancement of a liberal arts tradition -- that time is now.

Remember the scene in "The Godfather" toward the end of the movie when all of the families have a sit-down? Hardly a high-level meeting in administration goes by without my thinking about that scene in the movie. Why? Because for all the deadly bravado the various characters had shown in the earlier scenes, at that point everyone was serious and ready to talk business. They spoke their truths ("If something should happen to my other son …"). That temper might well
underscore the initial meeting. Challenged -- threatened! -- by a thousand ills, higher education must move in the direction of progressive reform or it will be overtaken by myriad forces into social, political and cultural positions very different from where it sits today. Integrating MOOCs (broadly interpreted) into undergraduate liberal arts education is one of those givens. How to do it is the key to maintaining not only foundational values but the relative autonomy of our institutions. The tone that accompanies accepting that reality puts me in mind of that scene of the movie.

Next come the stakes. Provosts, deans and department chairs, i.e., the people writ large who in any given moment have the power of promotion and tenure, should make it clear not merely that the work that goes into creating an active, MOOC modality in undergraduate education will be eligible in a faculty member's personnel file, but that it will be required!  Here is what I would say if I could play that role. "You all come from a variety of disciplines and subdisciplines. You know, or you should know, who your counterparts are in this country and abroad in your field of study. If you don't, find them. That's your job, not mine. Brainstorm the content of how you would work together to build multidimensional course content. For example, Professor X, you do American 20th-century political history. Find a colleague who does social and or cultural history of that era, or the literature or the music or the art scene. Or someone in China teaching American history. Whether the focus becomes perspectives, historiography or a fuller picture of what life in the 20th-century United States looked like from a variety of angles, it will become a richer experience undoubtedly for the students on both sides. From the beginning of this adventure, integrate your information technology team to coordinate the learning management system (or authentication to it), access to the resources students need and video capture and real-time transmission to bridge the geographical gaps. Academic librarians are also intimately involved from the beginning. If you are unaware of who else in the world might complement your study, their search skills and knowledge of collections in specialized areas could be a critical link to finding those people. Have them assist you with the design of undergraduate research projects. And if your institution's 'Center for Teaching' or whatever it is called has people skilled in helping faculty learn how to "flip a classroom," i.e. to have professors transition from 'sage on the stage' as their only mode of instruction to acting as inspired, Socratic guides to active learning among the students, bring those folks into the game as well. Language barriers? Bring in faculty and advanced language students to translate. What better way to teach and learn a language?"

Note the integration of "undergraduate competency" or "information literacy" skills for students. Coaching faculty on new teaching and learning approaches has been in the background of our "Centers for Teaching Excellence," but are brought to the foreground in this approach. The "clustering" of IT, academic librarians and faculty, i.e. having teams of those members work together on undergraduate research assignments, becomes a standard part of the preparation of teaching and learning, and is implemented with all of the team members working together with students on execution of the course material.  Through the use of these resources not only an interdisciplinary but an inter-institutional approach becomes all the more possible. And that's the idea.  To utilize technological tools to support pedagogy.  To "flip" the classroom, in other words, to get students to learn in a more active manner and not rely on passive learning for instruction. To bring academic librarians, who can teach students literacy and search skills that go beyond Google and cut and paste is what learning will be about in the 21st Century.

Once a thousand flowers bloom around the curriculum in the humanities, social and hard sciences, it might then be time to discuss how to integrate those areas into problem-solving learning. Problem-solving learning goes hand-in-hand with competency credentials. In fact, I suspect that adding problem-solving learning to that emerging area will offset concerns (mine, at least) about the development of critical thinking in competencies (as expressed in the last blog). Indeed, this entire approach is deigned to graduate critical thinkers. Not simply in the 1960s sense of "Question authority," but in the 21st-century sense as citizens who are motivated from the heart and intrigued from the mind to work through real global problems. What a tremendous advantage they will have in addressing life's challenges with this kind of education. And how proud will we be as educators to have guided them
along in that process.




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