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The word massive – as in massive open online courses – seems inconsistent with one of the hallmarks of an education at a small liberal arts college. But for the liberal arts colleges that have partnered with MOOC providers, the size is part of the appeal.

“Our social psych course, for example, more than 20,000 people signed up right away. Meanwhile, most of our classes here have fewer than 20 students,” said Wesleyan President Michael Roth. “That’s an interesting idea.”

Wesleyan, which offers courses through Coursera, was the first liberal arts college to venture into MOOCs, and the announcement this week that Wellesley College has partnered with edX means two of the major MOOC providers now offer courses from liberal arts colleges. In contrast, the founders of MOOCs were almost exclusively prominent research universities where the idea of teaching classes so large the instructor doesn't know everyone's name wouldn't shock anyone.

So how will MOOCs change liberal arts colleges? Or will liberal arts colleges change MOOCs?

For MOOC providers, the appeal of partnering with liberal arts colleges is relatively straightforward: a wider array of courses means a larger number of students. “We want to offer the best programs, and Wellesley certainly fits that criterion,” said edX President Anant Agarwal. “They really add a new diversity.”

Agarwal notes that although Wellesley will be the first liberal arts college to join the consortium, edX will begin offering liberal arts courses this spring through its other university partners; Wellesley will launch its first courses in the fall. Still, he believes that adding Wellesley to the mix will attract more and different students, adding that edX’s students so far have disproportionately been male, so he’s eager to see what happens when a women’s college is added to the mix. Wellesley's edX courses, which haven't been announced yet, will be open to both men and women. But Andy Shennan, provost and dean of the college at Wellesley, notes the courses will likely reflect Wellesley's mission as a women's college.

What’s less clear in these partnerships, however, is what the colleges stand to gain, particularly when some critics are heralding the rise of MOOCs as the beginning of the end for the liberal arts college.

“Some of my colleagues think this is the devil,” Roth concedes.

And while it could be that the doomsday talk in the liberal arts is driving these colleges to jump on the MOOC bandwagon, Shennan insists that’s not the case. “The debate over the value of a liberal arts education hasn’t been something I’ve seen as critical to this decision,” he said.

Instead, both Shennan and Roth cite a growing curiosity about MOOCs and their potential to shed light on how people learn. They also both acknowledge that the publicity won’t hurt.

“Part of the benefit is that many more people will know about what’s happening at Wesleyan than would have otherwise, and that will benefit our graduates as they go off into the world,” Roth said. “Especially internationally, I think raising the profile of the school is good for our students and our graduates."

Students – that is, the traditional ones living and studying on campus – could also stand to benefit in other ways, both Shennan and Roth said. Both colleges plan, for example, to engage undergraduate students in planning and teaching the courses, and both hope to take lessons learned from the MOOCs and apply them on campus. “It’s a very different enterprise, and I think we can learn from its differences and from the kinds of interactions students have with each other online,” Roth said. “We’re hoping to learn about how students use technology, what they might be learning, and what they might be interested in.”

Once more Wesleyan courses have run online, Roth plans to convene with faculty who are teaching MOOCs to discuss lessons learned and ways to apply them on campus. He’s hoping to gain insight into where students, both online and in the classroom, are paying the most attention or the least attention, where they’re learning the most and what points they are missing. Similarities and differences, he hopes, will yield insight into how people learn, and will allow professors to improve their courses. He’s also hopeful that by finding which parts of online courses are effective, professors might be able to integrate online components into their on-campus classes, as supplements or as part of a blended approach.

Similarly, Shennan said part of the reason Wellesley chose to partner with edX is the wealth of data the consortium provides on its students and how they interact with the course material. He hopes professors will learn more about effective teaching styles and will see ways the online classroom can inform the traditional classroom.

“We’re all on the same page that this is different than the residential-based, very intimate atmosphere,” Shennan said. “But can some characteristics of the educational experience be translated? That’s really the question.”

Roth, who is teaching a Coursera course, Modernism and Postmodernism, that launches next semester, said putting the course together is already impacting his teaching. He is teaching the course on campus this semester, and while he was originally planning to just record his classroom lectures to use for the Coursera course, he quickly realized the dynamics of a classroom don’t translate to a one-way video lecture. Instead, he is now recording his Coursera lectures before class, which has been an enlightening experience.

“I have to be able to distil the material in a more disciplined way when I’m taping, and I think that has helped me think about some of the issues in the course in a more focused way,” he said.

He hopes that when he next teaches the course on campus, he will be able to use his Coursera lectures to supplement the class.

“I expect that I’ll use some Coursera lectures to complement what I do in the classroom, which may mean I can be more interactive with my students in class, and have more conversations or group work,” he said.

Neither Roth nor Shennan really has a sense of what, exactly, they might learn or how MOOCs might eventually fit into their institutions. Still, both said they have faculty who are intrigued by the format, they see potential benefits, and they want to be part of the movement.

“This is going to be part of the future of education,” Roth said. “I just don’t know what part.”

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