A Flexible Future

Elite research universities, which have been leaders in exporting modular courses and resources to other colleges, are considering using them at their own campuses.

December 2, 2014

Some of the country’s most rigorous research universities have a new obsession: flexibility. As the institutions contemplate a more modular future, experiments with blended learning may provide an early glimpse at their plans.

Through strategic visions and partnerships, institutions such as Duke and Harvard Universities and the Georgia and Massachusetts Institutes of Technology are laying the groundwork for curriculums that will be delivered through a combination of face-to-face instruction, blended courses and distance education. A common goal is to offer students “flexibility” -- a word several administrators used to summarize their institutions’ aspirations.

The word has many definitions. For one institution, flexibility means giving students the freedom to race through core concepts on their own schedule, freeing up face-to-face time for more in-depth work; for another, it means giving students the opportunity to continue their studies whether they are on campus or not -- and beyond graduation.

Many of the universities exploring these options were leaders of the movement to create massive open online courses or open course materials that could be used to teach students at institutions other than their own. Now these universities are exploring how they can become more flexible to find multiple uses for the same content, including teaching their own students.

Regardless of the definition, flexibility has much in common with MIT’s plans to “modularize” education -- breaking courses down into smaller modules that can be taken on their own or shuffled and rearranged into a more personalized experience. In a preliminary report released last year, MIT toyed with the idea of “unbundling education and blurring boundaries” -- combining distance and in-person instruction to the point where students could one day spend as little as two years on campus.

“Achieving [those goals] will require a commitment to adopting new models of blended learning -- again emphasizing the flexibility to use different pedagogies in different settings -- and an investment in a diverse and flexible range of spaces that cater to different formats of learning,” the report reads.

“I would be surprised if elite schools didn’t move somewhat in that direction,” said Lynne O’Brien, associate vice provost for digital and online initiatives at Duke. “Once one or two schools set forth in that space, others will follow.”

Aspirations and Experiments

MIT’s plans are part of “everybody’s thought processes,” said Nelson C. Baker, dean of professional education at Georgia Tech, who joked that MIT may have peeked at his institution’s own strategic plan.

​“The most exciting thing in the last couple of years is the changing landscape ... of how research universities are talking about pedagogy and learning as a fundamental core tenet of the university,” Baker said. “If technology, if distance, if online had some role to change that conversation, home run.”

Georgia Tech’s ideas include creating a “continuum of learning,” Baker said. In the future, graduates of the university may be able to return for “short bursts” to apply new concepts to the degrees they earned years or decades ago.

Exactly how graduates would return and for how long is still up in the air -- which is why Baker described the idea as an “aspiration” rather than a plan.

Administrators at the other institutions also qualified their remarks with similar disclaimers, offering visions of the future of their universities, then pulling back to say those visions are still “conversations” or “ideas.” Their restraint reflects the fact that many of the universities' experiments are still in their infancy. Of all the courses Georgia Tech offers, for example, only a "small percentage" are run as blended courses, Baker said.

For now, the universities are encouraging their faculty to experiment with course delivery methods and materials to see which projects pan out.

Harvard, for example, has 47 projects (including some reruns of massive open online courses and content available on demand) planned to run this academic year, said Peter K. Bol, the university’s vice provost for advances in learning. Last month, the university approved yet another experiment: The popular computer science course CS50 will next fall be streamed to Yale University, where students will be able to take a version of the course for credit. As expected, the announcement has drawn plenty of snarky remarks about the universities' rivalry.

Of the various experiments in the works, Bol rated modularization as the most important, and said HarvardX, the university’s branch of the MOOC provider edX, plays an “important role” in that initiative. Last year marked the first time faculty used content created for MOOCs in blended courses on campus, and students generally thought those courses were of higher quality than traditional courses, he said.

“This will become ever more a part of lecturing,” Bol said, though he, too, described the plans as a work in progress. “We’re a couple of years out, but we’re on the right path.”

Duke is doing similar experiments with Coursera. The university was an early partner of the massive open online course provider, and its faculty members have since 2012 produced dozens of MOOCs -- including by some who have voiced their skepticism about the platform. O’Brien said faculty members have taken advantage of the partnership to create courses without having to worry about federal regulations governing financial aid or awarding students academic credit.

“Given that freedom, faculty have started saying, ‘My 14-week course would be better as three four-week courses,’” O’Brien said. “Should there be some [courses] that are broken in half so students can take the half they need? Maybe some of them can do a quick course on the most critical content, but then do a much more in-depth experience with mentored research or a lab or service learning -- the kind of thing you can really only do on campus and face-to-face.”

She added, “We’ve already seen people do those sorts of experiments with flexibility, and so we’re having a conversation now about whether there should be more actual options within the curriculum for people to learn things at different speeds or with different blends of courses.”

O’Brien said the interest in online education has come a long way since Duke faculty last year voted to pull out of 2U’s Semester Online consortium -- in part over granting students academic credit for fully online courses.

“I think we’re in a different place than we were before,” O’Brien said. “We don’t have a lot of concrete curricular changes yet -- it’s more a sense that these conversations are underway.”

Blended, Not Distance

While Duke, Harvard, Georgia Tech and MIT are all exploring modularization and blended learning, the former two are so far more hesitant about fully online education. Bol said there are faculty members at Harvard talking about distance education, but that there is “no interest” in reducing the time students spend on campus.

For the past two summers, Duke has offered a handful of fully online courses, mostly targeting students who physically could not be on campus. Asked if the university had plans to expand those course offerings to the fall and spring semesters, O’Brien said she believed faculty would likely vote against such a proposal.

“Our faculty control the curriculum, they control the classroom, and they’re going to make decisions about how they want to teach,” O’Brien said. “That’s not going to change.”

Baker, however, said many students are doing so voluntarily, even though their universities aren’t endorsing the idea. Many freshmen arrive with enough college credit to nearly be considered sophomores, he said, and about 40 percent of Georgia Tech’s students enroll in an international program.

“The truth of the matter is we’re approaching it if we view it through those lenses,” Baker said. “If we were to really look at the data of what residential students are doing, we may be closer than we realize to already being in those kinds of roles.”



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