Sunday, November 10, 2013

MOOCs, and faculty members as "lead" learners

I've been asked recently, once during an interview with a MOOC provider and once at a meeting with a giving foundation, about the characteristics of colleges and universities that might take to adapting MOOCs for use in their on-campus courses. There are varied reasons that institutions might use MOOCs. Most discussed are top-down, administration-imposed motivations for MOOC use, at junior colleges, larger public universities, and even at research 1 universities (RU/VH). But my response in both recent discussions was that small liberal arts colleges were the most interesting case to me. According to the Carnegie Classification (, these might be small (S4) residential (R) colleges, somewhat rural so that faculty live nearby too.
I am guessing that faculty at small, residential schools might enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to use MOOCs, for reasons other than workload reduction; I think that their students would embrace it as well, at least in part because their professors do.

I've only witnessed the "behind-the-scenes" of one small residential college to any significant extent,  but as I describe to other people the behind-the-scenes that I experienced, most recently in NYC at the foundation meeting, some give a knowing smile and affirm that mine is not a unique experience. These are schools in which the CS program, for example, might have 2-4 faculty members, some shared with Mathematics or other programs, with a total of AT MOST 20 majors spread across all fours years. Faculty and students are a tight-knit community, having dinners and participating in other events together. The number and variety of course offerings is limited to what a larger program might view as the absolute core, with faculty members focused on teaching those. A "boutique" course like Artificial Intelligence (ha!) might be offered on occasion. There are also reading groups and other informal learning with faculty and students that are part of the community practice. This is one setting where faculty members actively learn with students, and while the possibility of an "exotic" course like Machine Learning is improbable, its something that faculty and students would both welcome.

This is the setting where MOOCs may be a godsend for all involved, welcomed with open arms, so that students and faculty can learn from advanced courses like Machine Learning, which would not be offered without the MOOC, or in olden times, without a visiting faculty member to campus to teach it.

To me, the defining characteristic is that faculty are unafraid to learn side by side with students, and that students respect and enjoy a faculty member in the learning role, at least with respect to some of the advanced coursework that they wouldn't otherwise enjoy. I am guessing that faculty and students alike would both want the faculty members as "lead" or "elder" learners within the cohort. Such a setting can, of course, exist at larger colleges and universities too, and its where I see the MOST gratifying experiences with MOOCs in the classroom.

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