Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Ideas for Blended Learning in Teaching the Bible

In spite of my earlier, somewhat pessimistic, discussion of Humanities-related MOOCs, I come to the end of this program with renewed excitement about the possibilities of engaging mass online audiences with good teaching.  I am in the process of developing a proposal for a blended-learning program on steroids, a class that combines an in-class component with a (more or less) massive online auxiliary experience. Below are the details of the idea, and some questions that I still face.

This fall, I have followed a MOOC on the New Testament book of Ephesians taught by Jimmy Dukes at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. NOBTS has developed an interesting strategy in which participants can take the course for credit (paying a tuition fee), not for credit but for a grade (free), or not for credit and not for a grade (also free). Details are here: http://www.nobts.edu/OnlineSeminary/free-online-course.html. The Ephesians course was based on Blackboard as a platform for course materials and online discussions. The students who enroll in the course for a grade are put into small groups, with each group being responsible for two exegetical reports throughout the semester. Each week, one group submits a report for the next section of Ephesians, usually 10-15 verses, with a detailed set of instructions for the form and content of those reports. The grade is based on discussion engagement and on the group reports.

The strengths of this model compared with the Coursera courses that I have taken are the integration of different categories of students along with a robust model for group collaboration. This has helped me think about the possibilities of a blended approach in my own context.

The Bible and Ultimate Meaning

I teach multiple sections of Religion 111, The Bible and Ultimate Meaning, each year. It is a basic introduction to the biblical tradition with a focus on key issues and topics, examined across the canon. For example, the first two weeks is a discussion of the theology of God in the Bible (Old and New Testaments) and in conversation with the Western Christian and Jewish Traditions. We go from there to discuss Creation, Covenant, Justice, Messiah, Wisdom, etc. The class presumes no religious background or commitment from students, and is a very basic introduction.

One of the issues that students engage with regard to each topic is the contemporary landscape of religious debate. What do modern Jews and Christians have to say about "God" with regard to issues such as religious pluralism, institutional religious practices, modern scientific skepticism, etc. We read blog posts and watch YouTube videos as windows into these modern conversations.

It occurs to me that if I could somehow get a large and diverse group of people actually conversing with the students on these topics, it would enhance their engagement with and understanding of the contemporary debates. If students had to present their ideas not only to me and their peers, but to a wider outside audience, it would sharpen their argumentation and promote clear expression.

At the same time, if I could somehow make my academic expertise and the excellent contributions of my students available to the larger community, it would enhance the public's understanding of the biblical text and improve the nature of religious debate on the internet. In other words, could my teaching somehow translate into a contribution to the larger world of "public intellectual" engagement?

A Blended MOOC

What would be the advantages and disadvantages of teaching a regular section of Religion 111 while offering a Bible and Ultimate Meaning MOOC at the same time? My idea is that the regular class would be "flipped" or "blended," with the majority of content provided through readings, videos, and audio clips. As in a normal "flipped" classroom, students would spend class time in conversation and working in groups, with much of their work taking the form of online content (blog posts, wikis, discussion boards, video productions, etc.). The recorded content as well as student projects would then become part of the MOOC experience, with online participants engaging each other, the students, and me in conversation through the discussion board and through their own assigned work.

One pivotal question is what kind of platform would provide this kind of interaction. The NOBTS program uses Blackboard, and students must log in to view and use the materials. At Furman, we could open a section of Moodle to anyone who wants to sign up, though there may be technical limitations due to authentication requirements. My preference would be for an open platform that was viewable by anyone and that would persist beyond the course, essentially a media-rich blog and discussion forum devoted to the course. That is a major technological challenge, but if it were set up once, it could be used by others.

Disadvantages and problems:

  • A flipped class is hard to administer even on its own. Integrating a MOOC element would make it doubly challenging. Administrative support in the form of a TA would be essential.
  • Students may feel reluctant to make their work available on a wider basis. This exists with online projects already, but students do not normally receive external responses to their work even when it is posted online.
  • The classroom is a safe space for students to explore difficult issues. Would this kind of online engagement be a detriment to open, honest engagement? Would it polarize students rather than encourage them to consider new ideas?
  • Is it even possible under current FERPA law to expose graded student work to the public in this way? The grades themselves would not be public, of course.
  • How "massive" could it realistically become, and would a small number of online participants make the same contribution or receive the same benefit?
  • Biblical interpretation is a controversial subject. Would this program open up the class to more dissension, or even cause PR problems for the university? 

The Balance of Power in the Virtual Classroom

One of the biggest challenges that faced colleges and universities in the 90s and early 2000s was the task of creating and supporting a broad technological infrastructure in the age of the personal computer and the internet. That process led to the development of a powerful administrative hierarchy devoted to Information Technology. Now, as teaching moves online (in MOOC and blended-learning formats), the administrators in charge of campus technology have unprecedented power over the classroom experience itself.

IT Policies and Faculty Needs

Think for a moment about the development of IT policies in Higher Education from the perspective of goals and constraints. They were given a difficult task (to support the technological needs of the academic program) with finite resources. Many of the policies that resulted from this situation imposed limits on what faculty could reasonably expect from their IT department, and even in what faculty were allowed to do.

When IT departments staffed computer labs for faculty and students, they had a tremendous amount of control over what kind of technology and software was used on campus. As they began placing computers in faculty offices, however, it created new possibilities for exploration and experimentation by individual faculty. There arose an inevitable negotiation (sometimes a struggle or conflict) between the desires and needs of the professor and those of the IT department.

IT departments soon realized the benefits of standardization, both for cost containment and for the ease of supporting the campus infrastructure. At Furman, for example, these policies led to rules about how a person can spend their grant money for technology. All computer purchases must be approved by IT, even if the machines are not expensed from the IT budget. Because of security concerns, faculty are not allowed to run servers for internal or external access.  Standardization and administrative control over technology leads to a narrowing of choice and opportunity for technologically-advanced faculty, in the interest of IT sustainability for the campus as a whole.

Who is ultimately responsible for deciding what kind of technology a professor uses and how she uses it? The IT department exists to serve the needs of the academic program, including the faculty, but it also must do this with limited resources, both economic and personnel. This situation is frustrating but necessary given the economic and technical realities.

The Virtual Classroom

Now think about the role of IT in the physical classroom.  In addition to whatever computer or tablet the professor uses while teaching the class, there is usually a projector and/or teaching station for sharing multimedia and slides, and wireless internet for accessing online materials. These are support-level technologies, resources that make particular kinds of activities possible, but in normal classes they are not essential. Even if the power goes out, a professor can still teach a class without any supporting technologies.

How about the virtual classroom? In the case of MOOC, online, and blended courses, the IT department has control over the essential requirements of the course. They determine what space is created for the dissemination of content, what procedures are in place for course discussion and feedback, and how the class is archived and/or repeated after the professor has finished her job. In the physical space, it would be as if the IT department were responsible for building the classroom, assembling the students, making the room safe and comfortable, and controlling who has the permission to talk at any given time.

I am not sure that faculty have thought carefully enough about how changing technological "platforms" for online teaching will control what and how they teach in the future. The Information Technology hierarchy now has unprecedented control over mundane details of professor-student interactions. Given limited resources and capabilities, this will result in increasingly constrained possibilities for faculty teaching in these programs.

Administration Policy and Teaching

One final concern related to the increasing control of IT over teaching is the fact that IT is itself under the direct control of university administration. At most if not all universities, the IT director reports to the President or Provost, not to the Academic Dean. Whose interests are served, therefore, by IT policy decisions related to teaching? One example I would give is the "Blog and Wiki Use Policy" at my university (http://www2.furman.edu/sites/ITS/policies/Pages/blogpolicy.aspx). In addition to rules prohibiting the posting of copyrighted or commercial material, the policy says:

  • Announcements may not include content, material, or links that, upon viewing, could create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive learning and/or working environment.


  • Announcements may not be used to promote activities that are illegal, support commercial activities not associated with the university, or to provide personal financial gain.


  • A web page may be considered in violation of content policies if it contains links to pages that violate the policy.

Thus, the policy prohibits not only "offensive" content, but also links to "offensive" content. Who is ultimately responsible for policing this academic content? The IT Department:

  • Information Technology Services reserves the right to remove, at any time, at its sole discretion, any content posted on the blog or wiki services that it deems in violation of university policy or local, state or federal law."

This is problematic enough, but extend this to an online course situation and the stakes are much higher. For a non-academic department to have this much control over academic content should be of great concern to anyone interested in preserving academic freedom.

For further reading on this topic, I recommend Lawrence Lessig's Code (now in version 2, http://codev2.cc/), in which he shows how technological advances in recent times have made administrative and legal control more perfect and efficient. See especially Part 2, "Regulation by Code." In the chapter on Cyberspaces (ch. 8), he says: "Spaces have values. They manifest these values through the practices or lives that they enable or disable" (p. 85). If the university administration has direct and minute control over the virtual classroom space, then it will be their values that determine that space, not necessarily the values of the faculty.

On Technical vs. Qualitative Courses

Over the past year, I have participated to some degree in four MOOCs, with a wide range of success and challenges. The first MOOC that I joined was a programming course for beginning Python, and it was very enjoyable and effective. I stayed with it to the end, and have continued to use and develop my beginner Python skills.  Beginning last Spring, I participated in three MOOCs on more Humanities-related topics to see if that good experience would translate into more qualitative subjects. The results have been less encouraging.

The MOOC that I joined last Spring was The Modern and the Postmodern, (https://www.coursera.org/course/modernpostmodern), which is a skillfully designed and executed MOOC on a fascinating topic. It is perfect for anyone looking to learn some things about modern philosophical discussion, with a engaging and talented guide in Professor Roth.  My conclusion in going through this course was that a Humanities MOOC is good for individuals who would like to learn more about a topic, but is not an adequate substitute for an actual college course.

In my work at a small liberal-arts university, the most important aspect of my teaching is the written feedback loop: students write reflections and papers, and I provide feedback and direction along the way, and evaluation when they finish. In a MOOC, the only feedback that one gets is through "peer review." A participant submits a short paper and then provides "peer review" for three other students, which then qualifies the submitted paper for "review" by other "peers." In the rare instance that any qualitative feedback was given (in addition to the numerical rubric scores), the comments were cursory and shallow.

Like many professors teaching college writing these days, I make extensive use of peer review in my composition courses. This primarily takes the form of "writing workshops" during class in which students provide written feedback (following a rubric) for each other.  So why is a MOOC not as good as this?

There are two primary differences in the written peer review that students perform and receive in my composition course. 1) I am present in the room and interacting with them before, during, and after the process. The peer workshop is designed not only to benefit the paper authors, but also those who are giving the feedback. By critically examining another paper, students learn better how to think critically about their own writing, and I actively instruct them in this process. 2) Therefore, the peer review process in my course is learning-focused rather than performance-focused. The rubric check-boxes in my MOOC were purely performance-based, asking "Did this person complete the assignment?"  In contrast, true peer-review contributes to the learning process of both the reviewer as well as the one being reviewed.

On learning vs. performance goals, see the article, "Feedback and Self-Regulated Learning: A Theoretical Synthesis" by Deborah Butler and Philip Winne in Review of Educational Research 65 (1995) [PDF: http://www.konferenslund.se/pp/TV_Butler.pdf]. On pages 255-56, they say:

"Students who adopt learning goals seek expertise in the task's subject matter domain. In contrast, students who adopt performance goals strive to enhance their own and others' perceptions of their competence in the task. The relative emphasis a student assigns to learning goals versus performance goals is related to several prior beliefs, illustrating again the role of knowledge in shaping self-regulation. For example, choosing learning goals is positively correlated with positive beliefs about (a) agency, (b) the need to apply effort in learning, and (c) whether ability is a malleable (incremental) aptitude. In general, students who emphasize learning goals over performance goals study more strategically (Meece, Blumenfeld, & Hoyle, 1988; Pintrich & De Groot, 1990)."

Learning requires interaction and feedback. However, no expert feedback is possible in such an asynchronous and hierarchical course structure. In my view, this makes the learning process in the MOOC a pleasant diversion, but not a serious replacement for the classroom experience.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Incredibly Shrinking Teacher

Despite my skepticism about MOOCs, especially when it comes to the subjects I teach (philosophy), I have been fantasizing about teaching one.  It’s a sad thing to confess.  And I don’t dwell on it.  But it just keeps popping into my mind.  Partly, I’m drawn to the “Open,” and I think that you can’t really have that in a meaningful way without the “Online.”  I don’t need the “Massively” at all.  But once you’ve got something open and online, what would it mean to restrict participation?  I suppose that you could have an enrollment limit.  Limited (but) Open Online Course...LOOC...?

But anyway, there ARE some courses that I could imagine teaching MOOly. 

Elementary Logic.  These days, we may tell our students that logic is the study of how we think.  Or ought to think.  I think it would a lot better to say what logic textbooks used to say:  “Logic is what logicians study.”  Here’s why it would lend itself to MOOCing:  Logic (at the elementary level) involves a system of rules which, though tricky to master, can be very comprehensively expressed in ordinary language.  The application of these rules can be drilled through discrete exercises.  And those exercises can be checked automatically, say, by a computer.  There is some room for explanation in logic, but mostly the explanations consist in pointing out very definite errors.  There is not much to discuss that requires great attention, group participation, reflection, creativity, etc.  Again, at the higher levels things are different, but at the low levels logic is much like math—there are rules and skills and problems to solve.  With the right tech setup, one instructor could lead almost any number of students through a logic MOOC.  Then again...with the right tech setup, an instructor might not even be necessary....

And that leads me to another course I’d like to MOOC:  my intro level course on Mark Twain and Philosophy.  This class is unlike logic in just about every way.  It requires careful and extensive reading of very subtle stuff.  It calls on one’s ability to move fluidly back and forth from the most abstract philosophical idea to the most concrete narrative detail.  There are no rules to learn, or apply, or practice.  Unlike logic, it is possible, maybe even preferable, for every single student to take away something different from the course.  Unlike logic, it is a subject that grows and deepens and illuminates the more it is subjected to discussion.  Different configurations of students can discuss the same passages over and over again, each time gaining new insights—indeed, it can never really be safely asserted that the topics have been completely explored.  With the right tech setup, you could set dozens of groups off on discussion,  and gather their thoughts and reflections together again on a blog.  It would be hard to monitor the actual conversations, but then, why would you need to?  The instructor could be replaced by a kind of network of discussion groups, all distinct, but all coordinated and kept on track by a few representatives.  Maybe this is more like the cMOOC (connectivist MOOC) idea, or what is now called a DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course).  The goal is more to construct a discursive learning community than it is to transmit something from a teacher to students.  The latter idea hardly even makes sense in that picture.

It certainly seems like my MOOC fantasies range widely across the stuff I teach.  But what they have in common is that they by their nature de-emphasize the role of the traditional teacher/instructor/professor.  Where content is clear, rigid, self-contained, and univocal, it can probably be conveyed, drilled, and assessed mechanically.  We are, after all, in the age of the machine-graded essay!  Where the content is fluid, subtle, open-ended, collaborative, and so on, distributed conversations, loosely connected, are what we want.  There’s nothing to convey, drill, transmit, or assess. 

It could be that the MOOC idea is most attractive to me when it puts me out of business!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Whither the Scholarly Conversation?

A primary component of my job as a library faculty member is to teach students how to search for, discover, and evaluate sources of information to answer questions that their coursework raises for them and to support their arguments in papers, presentations, and debates. I talk with students about entering the scholarly conversation – researching what previous scholars have said about a topic, then furthering the discussion through their own scholarly work. 

I also talk a good bit with faculty about the sorts of research assignments that are most effective in teaching students this process. If they want it to be an authentic research process, I try to steer them away from giving students a bibliography of sources to choose from, putting all the necessary sources on reserve, or scripting the assignment so narrowly that there are right and wrong answers. A MOOC could approximate these three types of assignments, but these are just countless recombinations of sources already prowled and exhausted by the course professor. These assignments can be great for teaching students to write argument papers using supporting evidence and appropriate attributions of intellectual property. But even beyond the obvious and enormous MOOC problem with regard to teaching writing, I would argue that there is no discovery in these types of assignments. There is no evaluation of sources. And there’s no extension of the scholarly conversation.

One of the most satisfying occurrences in my profession is working with a student on research for a topic that truly interests them and having them find sources that explore aspects of the subject they have never encountered before – not in class lectures, not in textbooks or other assigned reading. And an even more exciting occurrence is when that student has found something about which their professor – the expert – ALSO didn’t know. I love observing or hearing a recounting of the student’s utter pride in discussing this finding with their teacher, the teacher’s head popping up in joy and a smile breaking out their face as they are whisked away from the tedium of discussing the same information over and over again.

I’m having trouble envisioning any way to catalyze these occurrences in a MOOC. If one assigned a research project to students in a MOOC, how could you provide them with access to the necessary wealth of scholarly resources (more on this in a future post)? Who would help them understand the nature of the current information environment and the place of scholarly literature within it? Who would teach them search techniques such as Boolean operators, nesting, truncation, and field searching? And then who would help them translate this awareness and these skills into effective searching for their particular topic? Who would evaluate their bibliographies and their use of sources in their writing? These are all difficulties associated with the M – it’s a problem of scale. These things require personal attention and interaction – just like most of the problems we’ve seen with MOOCs.

And if we’re not engaging students in this process as undergraduates, if they’re not having a chance to become empowered and excited by their own intellectual discoveries, will any want to go to graduate school? Where will our next generation of scholarly voices come from? And what will politics and culture and corporations look like if even less of the dizzying universe of information comes from scholars?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Student Goggles

I'll introduce myself, since I think my role and perspective are a little different from most of the faculty on this blog. I'm a member of the library faculty at Furman University. I've been here almost 20 years. I did my undergraduate work at Occidental College in L.A. -- like Furman but smaller and far more liberal. So I'm heavily steeped in the liberal arts. I don't teach regular catalog courses but I do visit classes across the curriculum to teach research skills and theory. I also teach an occasional 2-credit May Experience course.

Last Spring, I took a MOOC entitled “The Social Context of Mental Health and Illness.” It was taught by professor Charmaine Williams, an engaging lecturer from the University of Toronto.  There were about 27,000 students from more than 90 countries enrolled. It lasted 6 weeks, with about 2 hours of lecture and 15 pages of reading per week. Course completion was contingent on 3 essay assignments and one objective quiz. 

When the course began, I tried to imagine myself as an undergraduate or Master's-level student taking the course, comparing it to both my undergraduate experiences at Occidental and the graduate work I did largely via distance education from the University of South Carolina. The first thing that struck me was an extraordinary sense of distance between myself and Dr. Williams. It wasn’t the physical distance, and it wasn’t the screen. I was used to both of those from my M.L.I.S. work, and I had gotten to know almost all of those professors well despite these factors. It was the overwhelming number of other students enrolled in the course, among which I felt that any possibility of my voice being heard by Dr. Williams was extinguished. Douglas Adams fans might recognize my referring to the incident as being something like the torture of the Total Perspective Vortex. Many of the very best of my prior educational encounters had centered around one-on-one or small group conversations with my professors – extending the classroom discussion and digressing in fascinating and provocative ways. It was instantly clear that there was no such possibility here. As I lost myself in the nostalgia, I also briefly lost interest in the course.

But I roused myself and my interest again and decided to explore the discussion boards, in hopes of recreating feelings of connection and stimulation through interactions with my classmates. This had rather the opposite effect. At the point in the course at which I counted, there were 4,270 threads with about 32,000 posts. Searching for keywords related to course topics of interest yielded a hall-of-mirrors of unimaginative posts. I'm sure there were fascinating ones out there. I just couldn't find them. Reading the “top threads” was no more effective. And perhaps the most frustrating (albeit at times fascinating in a gawkish way) were the countless confessional posts relating to the participants’ own mental illness experiences. I should clarify here: I LIKE confessionalism. I LIKE for people to connect the content of their lives outside the university with the content of their courses. So for me to say this was TOO confessional is a really extreme statement. This wasn’t expanding or more deeply exploring the course content. This was wallowing and discussion-board therapy. I’m sure it was useful to the students who received feedback on their personal situations, but it wasn’t what I was looking for in the course. I would imagine that much less of this sort of thing goes on in courses unrelated to psychology and social work, but even the Leo in me is amazed at some of the narcissism and need for attention displayed in these boards.

Friday, October 4, 2013

MOOCs are not the problem

I’d like to talk like a philosopher for a few minutes—that means that I want to make naive, sweeping generalizations, and to ask some questions that most people think are kind of pointless.  Of course, talk about education very often has those qualities, even when there are no philosophers around.  Maybe I’ll fit right in.

I think that liberal arts colleges are always in a battle.  If they didn’t need students to show up in high enough numbers to pay the bills, who knows what their educational programs would look like?  But they do need students, and so they do try to change in ways that can interest and reconcile bill-paying parents.  This is an old problem.  The MOOC phenomenon won’t take away our students—I just don’t believe that anyone is out there thinking:  Hey, should I go to an expensive, private, liberal arts college....or just take a bunch of MOOCs instead?  Even when there are more and better MOOCs this will not happen much. 

But I think that MOOCs do indeed contribute to the ways in which we see the methods and purposes of education shifting.  And that does indeed affect what bills-paying parents want to see in their kids’ expensive colleges.  Parents, almost all parents, want their kids to get jobs.  If we told them that the education we offer would not help their kids get jobs, we’d never see their kids.  Likewise, if we told parents that we could, for the same money, get their kids jobs without having to go through four years of school, they’d pay the money.  That is, very few parents really care at all about what “liberal arts” means or contains.  They have purely practical concerns. 

I’m not knocking that impulse.  Folks need jobs.  It’s bad luck for us that our institutions ever came to be seen as useful in that way, but there we are.  And so we, not wanting to become purely vocational training centers, have developed an interesting kind of sales shuffle.  Liberal arts is about nurturing the spirit in a thousand ways, in line with the ideals of the ancients, and the pursuit of the Good...and it will also get you a kick ass job.  And just to make sure, we’re changing our curriculum and our methods to make sure that they have practical value.  Future doctor, you don’t have to take Ethical Theory, for we can now offer you Ethics and Medicine, a values-oriented course with practical value.

So as we try harder and harder to filter liberal arts goodness through practically valuable pursuits, the whole idea of what it means to be in college changes.  There are some things that I can’t do in a MOOC, and those are just the sort of things that are less and less part of our notion of education.

For example, what if I believed that the real essence of liberal arts education was composed of conversation?  Conversation with my colleagues, with my students, with my intellectual ancestors and descendants?  What if I believed that the point was to pass down, and participate in, the human search for self-understanding?  Those of you who read Michael Oakeshott will recognize that picture.  For Oakeshott, the point of education was to carry on a tradition of inquiry...not to produce anything, not to decide anything, not to yield any practical payoffs.  It’s a tradition of talking together, and especially one by which students are brought to fluency by teachers who immerse them in the conversation of the ages.

To contemporary ears, it sounds batty.  We are encouraged to be practical, to be marketable, to use the latest technology, to open the classroom to all, to assess rigorously, and so on.  To say that technology isn’t needed in my classroom is to say, virtually, that I am a dinosaur and a bad teacher.  To say that I have nothing practical to impart is to admit that I’m here (on the faculty) as a kind of indulgence, a nice enrichment, but not a key player.  To say that it is impossible to assess the most important “goals” of my teaching is to confirm, to some administrators, that I teach nothing. 

The tide has shifted so that where once it would have been possible to say:  “There are really important things we do here that can’t be done through a MOOC,” we will now say:  “If it can’t be done through a MOOC it is either worthless, undemocratic, or both.”
So I don’t think that the MOOC phenomenon is a threat.  (Some of my administrators do, but they’re wrong.)  I think that it is an indicator and a criterion.  It indicates our growing comfort with the idea of education as transferable product.  And it will become a criterion of pedagogically respectable aims. 

Liberal arts colleges are being pushed in this direction, but it should be obvious that they can’t head that way forever without giving up what makes them distinctive.   Resisting the MOOC movement sends a nice signal about how we feel about where we’re headed.  But nothing much will change if MOOCs turn out to be nothing but another passing fad.  To my mind, no institution has had the courage to say:  “We’re not a training center, and what we offer is not practical.  Go somewhere else for that.  Come here to inherit the questions and conversations of the human search for meaning.”  Until someone has that courage, we won’t really know what hope there is for liberal arts colleges.    


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Lessons from the Latin mini-MOOC

Here's the recording of our conversation with Dr. William Turpin of Swarthmore College. Dr. Turpin ran a summer latin translation group using Google hangouts.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

MOOCs' Murky Future, and the Liberal Arts

I am no pundit, and I'm hesitant to predict what will happen in the MOOC-o-sphere in the coming years.  Likely MOOCs will improve some.  Hopefully certain totally ineffective approaches to online education will die out (though I wouldn't count on it).  More MOOCs will surely be developed -- some of them quite educational, while others will be a waste of precious time.  There was a lot of hype, and MOOC-providers over-promised.  Many are now taking a more measured view of the (limited) success of MOOCs.  This, in itself, is a promising sign for the academy.  But again, my crystal ball is cloudy, and I won't pretend clairvoyance.  Besides, it's always possible that I can't see the forest for the trees.  So I won't go down that road.

Instead, I'm going to take a pragmatic look at some of the ways that I think MOOCs could interact with a small selective private liberal arts college. 

But first -- a note on variability.  Throughout this discussion, it is very important to keep in mind that MOOCs are each individual courses that vary dramatically.  Some courses seem almost like jokes.

For instance, I haven't really been watching the lectures of this Open2Study course on Game Development, but emails have reminded me to drop by for the assessments.  There are only four graded assessments for the course, one for each "module".  Each assessment consists of answering 5 multiple choice questions, basically all focusing on surface-level vocabulary definitions from the lecture (that I didn't watch).  After years of standardized tests, I'm a pretty good "multiple guesser", so I gave it a try.  First time round, I missed one of the five problems -- thank goodness I can "redo" the same assessment twice more!  Oh wait, 60% is a passing grade.  And I only have to complete three out of the four assessments in order to get a certificate.  That's clearly one to frame, and put next to my diploma!  If I can narrow down the multiple-guess answers to two, what are the odds that I *don't* pass the course?  (I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader).  (I should clarify -- I think there may actually be some decent content in some of the lecture videos... several students praised the course highly on the discussion board, and felt like they'd learned a lot.  However, the assessment and certification process for this course feels like a horrible joke.  It's especially worrisome since Open2Study's partner, Open University, offers accredited bachelor's online programs... I can only hope that those courses are evaluating their students on the basis of more than 15 to 20 multiple choice questions, that students can re-try 3 times each.

Other courses, such as this Coursera cryptography course that I started, before realizing that I didn't have enough time to devote to it, are quite rigorous, with challenging questions (even if some of them are multiple choice) that force you to dig deeper into the material and understand it.  Also, the Coursera Scala programming language course, and the Udacity A.I. for Robotics course both offer examples of how rich/challenging computer programming assignments can be effectively auto-graded by the computer.  Like courses at brick and mortar colleges / universities, but to an even greater extent, the quality of the course experience will vary widely, depending on the professor, the content, and how effectively the course has been adapted to an online format.

MOOCs in the liberal arts environment?

I work at Centre College, which is a fairly small institution, with enrollment between 1300 and 1400 students. Not very "massive".  We also have a fairly selective admissions process, and, despite the best efforts by financial aid to make the college experience affordable, most students/families must pay a fairly sizable tuition check for the students to be here.  Hardly what you'd call "open".  At Centre, we are devoted to giving students a highly personal education.  It's even in the college motto: "Personal education, extraordinary success".  And we faculty do have personal interaction with students regularly, from small classes to one-on-one tutoring during our office hours, to showing up to cheer them on and take pictures at their weekend soccer game.  That sense of the personal, and the learning community that forms in close physical proximity on the college campus, is a central part to what we do here.  Not exactly "online".  By this reckoning, it's hard to see what role MOOCs might play at a place like Centre.

And for these reasons, I don't see MOOCs as causing any fundamental changes to the college experience (barring fallout from the feared "MOOCpocalypse" that causes the higher education sector to melt down completely -- but I find that version of the future unlikely). However, it's worth pondering -- how might small liberal arts colleges take advantage of MOOCs, or the technologies behind MOOCs, without compromising their school's distinctive character?  Here are some avenues to consider:

Avenue 1. Professional Development.  Various surveys (like this one) suggest that the audience of students who enroll in MOOCs is commonly people who've already earned their bachelors degree or higher.  Morever, I would argue that it is continuing education and professional development that are most likely to be heavily impacted by the rise of the MOOC.  There is no shortage of post-college people who have jobs, but need or want to learn new skills.  The low-cost high flexibility structure of MOOCs is very conducive to this.  What does this have to do with a small private liberal arts college like Centre, whose student body is primarily 18-22 year olds fresh out of high school, and not professionals taking evening classes in accounting?  Well, professors need professional development too.  This is especially true in a field like computer science, where the landscape of languages and technologies keeps shifting, and (like Alice) I must run as fast as I can just to stay in the same place.  As such, I view MOOCs on new languages (like the Scala course) as an extremely valuable and productive way to keep up-to-date on my own skills, and thus also my teaching.  And while less crucial, I suspect even classics professors could benefit from taking another course on the Oresteia now and then, just to get a new perspective. 

Avenue 2. MOOC-as-a-textbookMOOC-wrapping.  Blended learning.  The flip-flopped classroom.  Whatever you'd like to call it.  The central idea here is to use the MOOC as a resource that students would participate in outside of the classroom, within the context of a traditional college course.  It would serve as the course textbook, giving students both lecture-ish video material, quizzes, assignments, an online forum, etc.  But students would still meet as a class with a professor, and this is where the real discussion would take place.  Furthermore, students would engage in projects that go beyond the MOOC.  Some see this as the final step in the convergence between textbooks (which have been trying to become more multi-media for years) and MOOCs (which don't live up to their promise of being a real course).  This model has quite a bit going for it.  Students could benefit from a wealth of high-quality instructional materials that have been organized, sequenced, and scaffolded online.  At the same time, they could benefit from guided discussions and deeper conversations with their peers, in a physical classroom setting, and the professor's personalized feedback (which is an element sorely lacking from MOOCs).  There are potential caveats, however.

A) Do the video-lectures of a MOOC provide enough detail that they really supplant  a textbook?  In most cases, I would say not.  But other written texts could easily supplement the MOOC as well.

B) Will the physical professor (e.g., I) lose authority in the classroom, if students are looking to the superstar MOOC professor in the videos as the main source of knowledge?   Again, I am not too concerned.  As long as I really do have knowledge that goes beyond the material that is being covered, I feel confident that my students will continue to trust and respect me.  A similar case could be made regarding the textbook author, who may have greater depth of knowledge about the subject than I do.  And it's not like students haven't had access to the Internet for years, with the ability to seek out higher authorities than myself on just about any subject matter I might be teaching.  Nevertheless, the students have an educational relationship with me that they don't have with the Internet, and they can't with Dr. Superstar Online.

C) Most seriously, such use of the MOOC materials may be prohibited by the profit-seeking MOOC providers, without some form of licensing structure.  Which, perhaps, just brings us even closer to the textbook analogy?  But letting one or two powerful MOOC companies control the terms of licensing seems like a dubiously strategic move for the academy to make, especially when there is the arguably superior alternative of truly open educational resources.  There's a can of worms here, but the upshot is that the "free" part of MOOCs isn't as "free" as many people think it is -- it isn't free if you want to get a "verified" certificate from Coursera (who recently made $1 million off of this), and it won't be free (for someone) if you're doing the MOOC as part of a regular college/university course.  In short, it seems that any way that you might get real credentials out of the MOOC is going to cost you money.  All that said, supposing licensing a good quality MOOC for classroom use only costs $10 / student, that pales in comparison to the skyrocketing textbook costs that students often pay these days.

Avenue 3.  Advanced independent/directed studies.  Being in a small academic program (3 faculty, 2 full time equivalent) at a small school, I am painfully aware of the challenges of offering very many special topics courses for students, beyond the core computer science curriculum required for majors/minors.  Thus, we often have talented students that are interested in exploring areas of the discipline that we can't offer courses in.  The simple truth is, if these students had gone to a large state university, they would have a much broader range of courses/topics to choose from.  Personally, I hate to see student interest stifled, so this term I am (without receiving any additional teaching credit) overseeing five students doing independent studies (three students working on learning Android phone app development, and two studying the intersection of robotics and drama).  I love doing things like this, but it can take time, and students can get a bit lost-at-sea if I don't give them enough direction.  Wouldn't it be nice if the students could do an online course on a relevant topic that they could work through on their own, and which would support their work on their independent project?  Yes, yes it would.  Would I still meet with them weekly to discuss their progress on the project, and help them to apply what they would be learning in the MOOC?  Yes.  But would they learn more, better, faster?  I think so.  In fact, I think there's a lot of great potential here, for augmenting the (sometimes limited) course offerings available small colleges with hybrid independent-study/MOOC combinations.  It has the benefits of high-touch interaction with the professor and independent project-based learning, combined with the benefits of structured content, dynamic lectures, and automatic assessment from the MOOC.  Any problems?

A) See the licensing caveat from Avenue 2 above.

B) Would I trust the MOOC alone without an additional project?  i.e., Would I feel comfortable awarding a student Centre College credit just for having completed a MOOC?  I think not.  First of all, as I mentioned way up top, the low level of effort needed to complete some MOOCs is ridiculous.  So it would need to be carefully vetted.  But even if it were, there's the potential for cheating.  I don't think that problem has been solved yet.  So I think it's important that the professor meet with the student, and have the student demonstrate what they are learning in some manner, outside of the context of the MOOC.  There are many ways that the newfound expertise might be demonstrated, but a project of some kind has a lot to recommend it, especially if it can force the student to apply conceptual knowledge to solve a problem that's grounded in the real world.

C) Many MOOCs are not the equivalent of a full college course.   That's fine for two reasons: 1) there's the additional project/work to complement the MOOC, and 2) students can simply be awarded less than a full course's worth of credit.  Most of the independent study projects that I do now only award the students 1/3 of the credit they would get for a regular course.  The students aren't doing it "for the credit" -- they're doing it for the incredible learning experience, which is as it should be!   (And having the independent study course title listed on their transcript will be a good thing for their future employment, etc.)

Avenue 4:  MOOC creation?  Creating and running a quality MOOC takes a lot of effort and money, and it's not clear whether this is the kind of game that small liberal arts colleges should be playing.  However, the possibility of creating an educational experience that your students could take part in along with other students from all over the world is a tantalizing one.  And there could be situations where it would make sense for a faculty member of a small liberal arts college to design and run a MOOC.  However, there's a more exciting possibility.  I was just talking to a colleague the other day, who said that if he were going to do something with MOOCs, he would want to build a MOOC *collaboratively with his students*.  That's right -- his students would get the experience of designing a course for people around the world to take.  The end result could be amazing, or it could fall to the ground in a flaming mess.  But either way, I feel confident that it would be an incredible learning experience for the students building the course.  There are interesting possibilities here for teaching our students to be producers of knowledge as well as consumers.  Perhaps the MOOC revolution will only come full circle when everyone is creating their own courses for everyone else.  Or maybe that's already happening at Udemy, and it's not the panacea for all the world's educational problems after all (surprise, surprise!).  But I insist -- there are interesting possibilities here to consider.

Avenue 5: Taking the M.O. out of MOOCs?  As the technologies related to MOOCs and MOOC-authoring improve, these same tools may be used in Small Closed Online Courses.  That is, I may be able to put together a few videos (or audio-over-powerpoint slides, or audio-over-tablet-scribbling), with integrated auto-graded quizzes, which I could incorporate piecemeal into my own more traditional courses.  Right now, that feels like a lot of work to go to, for probably not enough gain.  But as the tools improve, it may become easy enough that it's worth doing.

Avenue 6:  Combining some of the avenues above, it may become worthwhile to do some collaborative online course-sharing between small liberal arts colleges (say, within a consortium like the ACS).  This would still be a small course (say, fewer than 20 students), but they could be spread across 3 or 4 campuses.  Again, this could be beneficial for upper-level special topics / elective courses that small schools can't offer regularly on their own.  The technology for live video-streaming needs to come along a bit more, but there's hope.  The students might be able to all meet with the professor (or several faculty from several schools) via a Google Hangout for discussion, while completing MOOC-like videos & other materials outside of class.

Am I convinced that all of these avenues are good ideas that will work well for a place like Centre?  No, certainly not.  Do I think that we need to "jump on the bus" and drive down all of these roads at break-neck speed so that we don't get "left in the dust"?  Absolutely not - that's a recipe for disaster!  But I do think that we ought to try taking a few deliberate steps down at least some of these avenues.  Just because these paths might lead us into the woods, that doesn't mean that the view from these paths isn't worth seeing.