Friday, June 7, 2013

College is about much more than the classroom and the syllabus

"MOOCs might be a threat to certain universities, but they are not a threat to small liberal arts colleges such as Trinity University." 

During the past semester, the previous sentence (or a close approximation) has escaped my lips at least half a dozen times. This typically happens when confronted with dire predictions such as the following: 
  • "The storm is coming and half of the higher education institutions in the United States will be dead in the next 15 years." (Borsch, 2013) 
  • "In 50 years, he [Sebastian Thrun] says, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education, and Udacity has a shot at being one of them." (Leckart, 2012)
  • "Most of college -- the expansive campuses and large lecture halls -- will crumble into ghost towns as budget-strapped schools herd students online." (Ferenstein, 2013) 
I'll be the first to admit that my reply is a defensive -- even reactionary -- response to predictions about the death of higher education. It emerges from my lizard brain, the fear-drenched part of my mind concerned solely with self-preservation, as an answer to predictions that I find deeply troubling.

I love being a teacher. Education is an avocation -- a calling -- that caught me entirely by surprise in my early 20s. After all, I was hardly the world's best student. I flunked multiple courses as a sophomore, and was forced to go on academic leave for a year. I never anticipated ending up at a place like Trinity. I never dreamed that so much of my identity would be wrapped up in my role as an educator. 

But it has. And this is why my immediate, reactionary response to the threat of MOOCs is very much concerned with my self-interest and with the continued sustainability of institutions such as Trinity. 

The fact that this is a reactionary response does not make my argument any less compelling. Even if MOOCs are wildly successful, I am confident that there is a place for institutions like Trinity in the educational landscape of the 21st Century. 

But once that's out of the way -- once my fearful lizard brain has been placated -- I can step back and look at the bigger picture. I can revisit my claim that "certain universities" might be threatened by MOOCs.
This is *not* the Trinity experience.
First, let's cut through the euphemisms. Spoken in hushed whispers, the phrase "certain universities" is an obvious reference to R1 institutions with tens of thousands of students. This contrast between places like Trinity and places like the University of Texas is a standard trope ripped directly from conversations with parents and prospective students during Trinity In Focus. They (the R1 schools) are big. We are small. They focus on research grants. We focus on low class sizes and intensive contact between teachers and students. They teach most of their classes with graduate assistants. We don't have graduate teaching assistants. They create specialists; we create generalists. You know the drill. 

This is our pitch, right? This is what we tell ourselves, and it's what we tell prospective students. And, it's true. There is a world of difference between a place like Trinity and a place like the University of Texas. I believe every word of the pitch. This doesn't mean that one approach is necessarily better than the other. But there is definitely a difference. 

But, does this difference mean that R1 universities are more vulnerable to the threat of MOOCs than places like Trinity? As far as rhetoric and salesmanship are concerned, the answer is "yes." The rise of MOOCs has come at an excellent time for expensive, small universities that privilege face-to-face interaction between teachers and students. MOOCs make it even easier for us to highlight our key differentiators. In rhetorical terms, MOOCs are a boon for us and they force admissions counselors at R1 schools to work a bit harder. 

In the long run, however, I do not think that R1 institutions are seriously threatened by MOOCs. For one thing, they can point to other differentiators -- things like D1 athletic events, amazing libraries (though Trinity's library is also quite amazing), nuclear reactors, access to cutting-edge research equipment, off-campus housing -- when making their case. But this is just part of the picture. 

R1 institutions are not seriously threatened by MOOCs for the same reason that Trinity is not seriously threatened by MOOCs: the college experience is about much more than what appears on the course syllabus. 

As an undergraduate, I attended UC Berkeley. A large, public institution, it was an excellent example of the things we love to criticize about R1 schools. Nearly half of my courses were taken in lecture halls with anywhere between 150 and 500 students. The few times that I attempted to meet with my professors, I encountered long lines of students who were waiting for just a few minutes of interaction with their professors. 

But this was only part of my experience. My education also included heart-to-heart conversations in dorm rooms in the middle of the night, it included the discovery of interesting things that could be accomplished with a lighter, a thumbtack, and a small juice glass, and it included amazing spaghetti dinners that my TA, Omid Mantashi, hosted for his favorite political theory students.

Barrington Hall was a cross between a dorm, an
art installation, and a post-apocalyptic refugee
camp. Created in 1935, it closed its doors in 1990.
My education included conversations with street people who lived in People's Park, it included late night runs to Top Dog, it included eerie and marvelous journeys through the graffiti-drenched corridors of Barrington Hall, and it included an accidental introduction to the Internet years before the global network was made available to the general public. My education included endless games of Hearts at Cafe Botega, punctuated by wild-eyed debates about the future. Would the Cold War ever end? Was a proper Marxist revolution imminent? Would we someday measure memory in Gigabytes? Could a Black man ever be elected president? Could a woman? (Spoilers: Yes. Definitely not. Oh yes. Yes! And, not yet, but soon.) 

In sitting down and attempting to convey even a handful of fragments from those years, I'm overwhelmed by the intensity and depth of those memories. So much of my education at this large, impersonal public university happened outside the classroom when I fed ideas from my classes back into my lived experience. I loved every minute of it. 

I'll be honest. When I imagined college as a teenager in 1985, academic considerations were  low on my list. The furnace of my expectations stoked by a healthy diet of pop culture, I dreamed of parties (Animal House), self-discovery and romance (The Graduate), sex (Real Genius, Revenge of the Nerds I-III), and revolution (Woodstock, 1969, The Strawberry Statement). Yes, I knew that class sizes were huge. Yes, I knew that there were 35,000 students. But, as a hormonally-driven teenager, I actually *liked* those numbers. This meant 35,000 chances that I might finally get laid. 

Of course I didn't put that on my college application. 

My language might strike some as coarse, but I honestly don't think I was that much different at the age of 17 than today's prospective students. 

These are the sorts of things we rarely mention when discussing the future of higher education. College is about so many different things; academic accomplishment and classroom instruction are just pieces of the overall experience.

For me, the most important thing about college was the opportunity to spend four -- OK, five and a half -- years in an entirely new community composed largely of other young (or at least young-at-heart) people much like myself. My classes mattered, and I had some great professors and teaching assistants, but my education became most meaningful when the ideas and insights from the classroom were fed into the crazy, dynamic feedback loop of my lived experiences. Gradually, bit by bit, these interactions with other people helped me understand more about myself. It was exhilarating. It was heartbreaking. I failed miserably. I succeeded wildly. It was an adventure. 

Years later, from my vantage point as a middle-aged college professor, I get the sense that many of our students at Trinity are experiencing their own crazy versions of the college adventure. And I believe that the same thing is true for students at places like the University of Texas. 

MOOCs can be terrific educational tools, but they do not come close to offering the depth of intense experience and the unpredictable life lessons that emerge from the adventure we call college. 


Steve Borsch, 2013. "Why Higher Education is Dead," Connecting the Dots, May 30. 

Gregory Ferenstein, 2013. "How California's Online Education Pilot Will End College As We Know It," Tech Crunch, January 15.

Steven Leckart, 2012. "The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever," March 20.