So what’s the buzz in higher education these days? Maybe you have heard it. It is not a soft hum like a bee around a flower, nor is it even mildly annoying like the emergency alert system on the television. It is more like the “get out of my way” roar of a chain saw at full throttle. It is the buzz of the “Massive Open Online Courses,” better known as MOOCs.
Inspired, perhaps, by Khan Academy’s initiative to bring well-known teachers online to teach short (and free) lectures to anyone with an Internet connection, MOOCs have become the most talked about pedagogical innovation in a very long time. MOOCs typically offer full-blown courses, many of which you would recognize (at least the titles) from current college catalogs. These courses are taught by some of the most widely recognized names in higher education. Faculty from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Virginia all participate. More recently, Wellesley and Wesleyan have jumped in with both feet. The three best-known of these are Coursera, edX, and Udacity. Depending on your interests and the timing of course offerings, you could be enrolled and engaged in your first MOOC class in, say, 30 minutes—you and maybe 100,000 other students from around the world.
We all know the stories of disruptive technology that turns an industry topsy-turvy. Look no further than music or entertainment for good examples. What will MOOCs or the next generation of MOOC-like offerings do to—for?—higher education? Ours is a multi-billion-dollar industry in which the incentive to cash in on a more “efficient” model is enormously powerful. Very, very smart people are trying very, very hard to figure this out.
Glibly, it is easy to see how MOOCs can be an enormous opportunity for colleges like ours. But at the end of the day, pure content delivery is a small fraction of what we are fundamentally about, and MOOCs, right now, are mostly good at content delivery. If Harvard, MIT, and Stanford want to provide us with free (or, very cheap) content, our faculty can ask students to subscribe to a MOOC while spending their own time with them on far more interesting, higher-order critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and ethical reasoning skill development. Sounds great. But, I promise you, pure content delivery is not the projected end game for these very smart MOOC developers. They aspire to much more. Whether they succeed or not is another question, but to ignore the MOOC world, or just to see it as a nice little freebie, is to be ridiculously naive.
My relatively recent obsession over trying to figure out the future of these things has prompted me to ask some foundational questions about what it is that really makes Beloit College, Beloit College. What are our core commitments without which we would lose our soul? Liberal arts? Residential life? This rapidly leads to the question of how path-dependent we are and how path-dependent we should be. If we were to start Beloit College from scratch in 2013, what would it look like, how would it be structured, how would we imagine an education being delivered, and who would think us most relevant? This is not disconnected from my comments above. Our relative value, our future, critically depends on how we answer these questions.
All institutions need to ask similar fundamental questions about core values and mission every so often, followed by a willingness to invent new ways to become increasingly better at achieving those objectives. You might like to think that institutions will do this naturally, but often an external prod (can you feel my discomfort?) is the real motivator. This is such a time. Although in its very early stages, this new conversation is exhilarating and energizing. Beloit has an unparalleled place as an innovator in higher education in America. I believe it is time for us to demonstrate our leadership one more time.
From here at Chapin’s desk, it is a surprisingly great day to be a Beloiter.
President Scott Bierman