Focus on the Presidency: The Shapes of Learning

By Bobby Fong    //    Volume 21,  Number 1   //    January/February 2013

American colleges and universities must be committed to inclusive excellence, promoting both access to and quality in higher education. But the current excitement over online innovations can obscure the complexities of this dual commitment.

The development of massive open online courses (MOOCs) signals a renewed appreciation for the “sage on the stage,” wherein a renowned authority conveys the current knowledge on a subject with cogency and eloquence. MOOCs can offer free or inexpensive access to knowledge on an unprecedented scale, and boards are rightly asking what effect this innovation will have on higher learning and degree attainment.

MOOCs and other forms of online learning may address some concerns over access and affordability, but they are not panaceas. Packets of knowledge attained by fulfillment of discrete course requirements are not equivalent to an education. Studies of college outcomes, such as those in Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (University of Chicago Press, 2011), suggest that many college graduates demonstrate insufficient breadth and depth of learning and that they are ill-equipped to engage in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication. Employers deem such learning outcomes essential for success.

The National Survey of Student Engagement has identified certain high-impact teaching practices that help students attain these needed skills, including the establishment of learning communities and an emphasis on writing-intensive courses, collaborative projects, undergraduate research, service learning, and internships. These practices are characterized by interactive learning; rigor as measured by time on task; a focus on teaching the arts of inquiry, analysis, and problem solving; and teachers who act as “guides on the side.”

We have a conundrum: the broad access to brilliant teachers offered by MOOCs is no guarantee of quality learning. While online innovations enable instructors to breach traditional barriers of distance and time, knowledge presentation alone does not ensure that students understand, learn, and can apply that knowledge in new situations. High-impact practices that foster such deep learning emphasize recurrent interactions among students and between instructors and students. They typically require frequent assignments and prompt feedback and include experiential projects and learning that go beyond the classroom.

MOOC developers do seek to address these pedagogical challenges. Crowd-sourcing technologies can enable continuous participation in online discussion forums so that students can learn from one another and instructors can re-gauge presentations as questions occur. Rubrics for tests and homework can permit both students and course evaluators to assess the work of individual participants.

At present, only a small proportion—as low as 5 percent—of MOOC enrollees complete all the assignments in a course. That may grow as such courses are awarded certification or academic credit transferrable to degree-granting institutions. But the legitimacy of online innovations ultimately must be tied to the same criterion by which traditional colleges and universities are adjudged: What is the quality of the product?

Over my 35 years as a professor, dean, and president, I have seen the lecturer model complemented with a rich variety of pedagogies. Instructors intersperse exposition with discussion; more frequent papers and quizzes have succeeded the traditional midterm, research paper, and final; students do collaborative projects as well as individual presentations; classroom activities lead to independent research and internships. At its best, undergraduate education is better done to the extent that institutions have supported the blending of the sage on the stage with the guide on the side.

I look forward to seeing future models of blended education that include MOOCs and other online innovations. For the moment, it is difficult for me to imagine the efficacy of a purely online education for preparing teachers and nurses, dancers and engineers. Even for history and English majors, I advocate internships and service learning, where the discipline is put to use beyond the campus. Beyond access, affordability, and degree completion, we need to measure every pedagogical innovation against the goals of educational quality and true learning that prepare students to succeed at work and in life.

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