February 28, 2013
It’s Friday afternoon, and Carol Bresnahan is in class. Well, not exactly in class—rather, she’s watching a lecture on her computer in her office.
This is strange for two reasons. One, Bresnahan is provost and vice president at Rollins College, which means she has essentially unfettered access to any classroom on campus. Second, the undergraduate online class she is taking, based out of the University of Virginia, is called Global History since 1760; Bresnahan already has a PhD in European history from Brown University.
This class is what’s called a MOOC—a massive open online course, in which potentially thousands of people from all over the world learn about subjects ranging from history to quantum physics to psychology to statistics to songwriting, usually (at least for now) without obtaining academic credits.
Sometimes, people take these classes for intellectual stimulation. The University of Virginia, for example, also hosts a MOOC called Know Thyself, an exploration of “the nature and limits of self-knowledge from the viewpoints of philosophy, psychoanalysis, experimental psychology, neuroscience, aesthetics, and Buddhism.” This course, like other MOOCs, is free, and low pressure. If you bomb a quiz or final exam, it’s not like you’ve wasted thousands of tuition dollars or blown your GPA.
Other times, individuals take MOOCs to acquire or demonstrate the acquisition of a skill. A few courses offer certificates of accomplishment that may bolster students’ CVs or highlight a particular expertise.
“The reason I’m interested,” Bresnahan says, “is the president [Lewis M. Duncan] asked me to look at faculty at Rollins College who may be interested in teaching a MOOC.” While she could have opted to study these new phenomena from afar, Bresnahan wanted to learn what it felt like to take one of these classes firsthand.
At first blush, she acknowledges, that may seem contradictory. Rollins, after all, prides itself on its small, engaging classes, not monstrous, impersonal courses where the professor is a thousand miles away and the only interaction occurs on a website bulletin board. But like it or not, she says, MOOCs could be the next big thing in higher education: “There are really smart people who see MOOCs as the wave of the future,” she says. If that’s the case, if Rollins doesn’t get into the game, it could be left behind.
There’s also the “very imminent possibility that MOOCs will be credit bearing,” meaning that, in the near future, Rollins may end up crediting students for MOOC classes the same as it does for community college classes. In fact, the American Council on Education has already recommended that several MOOCs be considered for academic credits.
Bresnahan’s goal, then, is to evaluate how these courses work—how the professors avail themselves of technology, how students are evaluated, how it all could play out at Rollins. Back in December, she went on a website called Coursera, which claims more than 2.7 million students participating in more than 300 courses from some of the top universities in the world, and signed up for the history class.
A month in, she seems less than enthusiastic. “As a historian,” she says, “I think the material has been dumbed down. The lectures are very simple and straightforward. The form and the level of the lectures strike me as something maybe more appropriate for people in junior high or high school.”
Then there’s the fact that the course’s lectures are akin to the lamest TED Talk imaginable—a talking head, talking into a camera. “[The professor] never takes advantage of what computers are really good at.” There’s no effort at multimedia integration, no sense of playfulness or imagination, just a guy talking.
Finally, there’s the matter of quiz grading, which, with thousands of far-flung students, “is essentially the function of a computer program somebody wrote.” On her first week’s quiz, one of Bresnahan’s answers was marked wrong because she formatted the question in a manner the grading program didn’t recognize, and there was no human around to overrule the program.
That isn’t to say MOOCs don’t have advantages. Students can watch the weekly lectures whenever they want—late on a Friday afternoon, for instance—and they offer regular Joes access to some of the finest academic minds around, including professors at Harvard and Princeton and other Ivy League schools. A Rollins-hosted MOOC could give the school greater national exposure, demonstrating to students the world over what makes this school uniquely enriching.
As for MOOCs’ future at Rollins, “I’m not sure yet,” Bresnahan says. “That’s really the $64,000 question.”
By Jeffrey Billman
Office of Marketing & Communications
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