Monday, September 10, 2012


Competing with “Free,” Part Two

If non-elite colleges and universities want to avoid the fate of travel agencies and film companies, what should they do in the age of free MOOCs?

I’d suggest focusing more clearly on what they can offer that MOOCs can’t.  That means having people around to help students get through the perplexing parts of courses; having advisors who can help students knit together disparate courses into coherent programs; organized tutoring; in-person collaboration and projects; ‘flipped’ classrooms; and specialized facilities.  It absolutely does NOT mean large lecture halls.

In fact, the flipped classroom – in which the lecture is delivered online, and class time is devoted to doing the work, with a professor available as a resource – could work beautifully with a MOOC.   Freed from the burden of having to explicate the basics over and over again, on-site faculty could use class time to shore up weak points, pursue deeper understandings of the material, and even have students apply it.  The professor could provide context.

Of course, some pushback is likely.  Faculty who were trained as t.a.’s in grad school might recoil at being put back into that role, with the sage on the stage replaced by the sage on the screen.   Some of that is to be expected, but if the job of the professor is to help the student succeed, then the results will settle the issue.  And to the extent they don’t, the marketplace of tuitions will.

If I’m anywhere close to right, then the role of the non-elite institution will be to level  the educational playing field.  Strong, well-prepared students will do just fine without much help, but most students coming out of the k-12 systems that actually exist don’t fit that mold.  They need structure, and support, and a fair amount of customized, human interaction to be successful.  I know humanists hate this phrase, but that would be the ‘’value-add” of colleges.

Community colleges are actually in a good position to get in front of this shift, if they’re willing.  They already focus on teaching, and they usually have smallish classes anyway.  (At Flagship State, where I got my doctorate, the undergrad Intro to My Discipline had 300 students.  Here it has 30.)  If community colleges are willing to accept the reality of change – a major ‘if,’ but still – they could recast themselves to take full advantage of the new, free resources.  Institutions that rely on 300 student lectures may have a harder time.

Colleges will also have to remember the non-academic side.  My brother recently forwarded me a wonderful description of it, from, of all places:

If even half of what you learn is in the classroom, you're not doing things right. College is also the ultimate self-discovery school, a Brownian personality-builder that bashes you off other people to help you all stop sucking. The most important part of education is learning who you are because no, shut up, you really don't know. Not a clue. And that's awesome! Imagine how terrible the world would be if every 17-year-old was actually right about what's important.

It’s funny because it’s true.  Some of the most important elements of college, for me, happened outside of class.  It’s hard to replicate that in a commuter college, obviously, but all the more important to try.  To the extent that college is reduced to the content of classes, something important is lost.  

Focusing on the student experience may require rethinking some of the more indefensible habits into which some places have fallen.  (Flagship State had 60-minute parking meters outside a building with 75-minute classes.  And yes, the students noticed.)  That’s probably for the best.  

The alternative, I think, is to fall into the well-worn habit of denying the validity of any external change at all, until a succession of Republican governors takes hatchets to higher ed funding, arguing, correctly, that people can get the content of higher education for free.  At which point, the folks who already have the economic and cultural capital to succeed will be fine, and everyone else will fall even farther behind than they already have.  If we take seriously the responsibility to educate people who don’t come from money, we have to take the appeal of MOOCs seriously.  If we don’t drive this train, it’ll run us over.

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