Recently, while visiting a trustee, he shared with me an impressive array of materials from an online course that he was taking at no charge with tens of thousands of “classmates.” Large-enrollment, free courses are becoming commonplace. In fact, a new acronym—MOOC—has sprung up to describe these massive, open, online courses. Highly regarded institutions like Stanford and MIT are providing MOOCs that present content similar to what is covered in some of their campus-based courses. Pilot versions are enjoying enrollments of more than 100,000.
What will this do to the business model for colleges and universities? Some worry that the residential college experience will become obsolete, replaced by online courses and digital technologies. Others dismiss the supposed threat, likening it to the correspondence courses that seemed on the verge of becoming the dominant mode of delivery at the beginning of the 20th century. I disagree with both points of view. I think MOOCs will continue to develop and will enjoy widespread popularity in coming years. I also think that colleges like ours will find ways to import and integrate these massive, online courses into our personalized, face-to-face education. Rather than competing with MOOCs, we will find ways to take advantage of those things that they are well-suited to accomplish, freeing us to focus more time on the critical work that defines our value proposition.
When colleges describe their educational vision they tend to focus on attributes that make them unique. At Monmouth we talk about active learning and the integration of knowledge. We also talk about creating good citizens who have found a purpose for life. What is left unstated, because it is assumed, is that our lofty goals rely on a series of elementary processes that are associated with learning. Students at all levels and in all types of institutions must acquire routine knowledge; they must memorize facts, understand theories and develop proficiency with fundamental skills such as writing, speaking, and critical thinking as well as fundamental tools such as lab equipment and computers. Much of this basic knowledge is and long has been available in textbooks, worksheets, film strips, LP records, instructional videos, public access TV programs, recorded lectures and now in the digital media. What distinguishes the very best colleges, it seems to me, is their ability to accomplish the routine aspects of learning efficiently and they often do that by taking advantage of tools to assist in transmitting routine knowledge. In doing so, they enable students and faculty to devote a greater portion of their time to higher order learning.
None of us can predict the future with certainty, but I expect that very soon this country’s best colleges will be tapping into massive, open, online courses, to assist our students and faculty as they look for ways to move quickly through basic knowledge in order to concentrate on higher-order learning. Initially, it will seem unusual for professors to assign a portion of a lecture being presented at a distant institution as part of an on-campus, face-to-face course. But over time (and perhaps not very much time) it will become as accepted as having students purchase a text written at another college or read an essay written by a distant professor.
As I think about my earlier career as a chemistry professor, I wonder how much of my time was spent teaching basic concepts, even as I wonder how much better I might have served my students if I could have jumped right to the questioning, and hinting, and guiding, and mentoring that provided the unique value of the residential liberal arts college where I taught. More broadly, I wonder how much of the time and effort of college educators was and still is devoted to replicating material that is in a textbook. What if those lectures that explicated, explained, and reiterated the textbook could come to life in a digital version of the professor? Would the work of a professor become irrelevant? Or, would the virtual professor free the real professor to focus on the human interactions that make our approach an educational best value?
I find it instructive to reflect on the impact of some of the early examples of digital technology. It hasn’t been all that long since digital balances replaced the analog versions in general chemistry laboratories. I still remember the sequence of emotions that accompanied my realization that this leading-edge technology would create a paradigm change in the introductory laboratory. One or two digital balances would certainly replace a whole room filled with those green, Mettler mechanical balances that were in vogue when I began my career in academics. Existing three-hour laboratory exercises could be shortened to two hours and the opportunities for careless errors (and the associated means for distinguishing the A student from the C student) were about to disappear. My special skill at training students to use a traditional tool was about to become obsolete. Wisely, my generation quickly redesigned (and enriched) the laboratory exercises to take advantage of the time savings. Faculty members redirected their efforts toward critical thinking and problem solving rather than demonstrating manual skills.
In the years that followed, new, mostly digital, technologies continued the transformation of my work as a chemistry instructor. New software and hardware made it possible for students to collect, share and analyze more information in a few hours than they previously could have in a semester. Laboratory courses that previously focused on confirming material that students were taught in lectures became opportunities for students to ask and answer interesting questions and discover for themselves fundamental principles.
In less than a decade new technologies transformed the laboratory teaching and learning environment; most of what I had been doing as a professor was no longer necessary and the nature of student work was fundamentally different. In theory, we might have kept our learning goals the same and accomplished them with much less time invested by both the professor and the student. Instead, we embraced the new technologies to both transform and improve the teaching and learning process. My work as a professor became at once more meaningful and more challenging. I hope the same was true for my students.
Will MOOCs have the same impact on teaching as did those digital balances? I hope they replace elements of our teaching that, while important, are routine. In some courses professors spend the majority of their time doing that which is routine in order to spend a few hours of high-quality teaching and learning. If we are wise we will find ways to use MOOCs to redirect our time and effort to those special activities that set our courses and our colleges apart.
Those institutions that have not identified a unique institutional purpose may be tempted to replace existing courses with their own versions of massive, online courses. And, perhaps they won’t lose much. Maybe they don’t have that much to lose. Colleges that know what they want to do, particularly if what they want to do trends toward a unique mission, will benefit as they find ways to use MOOCs and related digital opportunities to unmask the excellence of their faculty and staff. Keep an eye on MOOCs and keep an eye on Monmouth College.