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Message from President Jeffrey Herbst
Anyone following national news coverage of higher education knows that putting classes online for “students” around the world has created a media frenzy, including a recent
New York Times
story headlined “College of Future Could Be Come One, Come All.” This extensive coverage exemplifies a troubling tendency to extrapolate a possible future from a few experiments: that impersonal broadcasting of courses to massive numbers will become the way of the educational world.
Chemistry 111 with Professor Ephraim Woods (photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio)
While “distance education” in various formats has been around for decades, the focus today is on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), taught by college professors and currently being offered for free by a growing number of universities, for which tens of thousands have signed up. This new paradigm has suggested to some that the fundamental way that colleges “deliver” education could, or should, change.
While this is only day one of truly massive online education, and improvements will certainly happen as it evolves, the basic model for MOOCs has shortcomings that cannot be ignored. For one, a financial model to host courses currently presented for free does not exist; institutions will need to find a way to fund courses that are currently being presented for free. More important, measures for success with this educational model are vague, if defined at all; for instance, in one course heralded in the
, out of 40,000 enrolled, only 1,283 completed the final exam. The fact is that only a small percentage of students who sign up for MOOCs ever finish them.
As well, offering MOOCs to a global student population would be a significant diversion from current teaching efforts on campus — an increase in faculty workload few colleges could afford. And, although MOOCs establish a “virtual community,” they lack the personal contact made possible by physical proximity.
I don’t mean to say that MOOCs do not have their place; indeed, their extraordinary enrollments demonstrate a worldwide thirst for learning that can only be admired. But even the schools hosting MOOCs have been very clear that they are not a replacement for what they offer on campus.
When I talk with alumni, they are frequently curious about what is happening at Colgate in this realm. On campus, we are following these trends closely to find the right mix for us. Our approach is to experiment with technology initiatives that allow us to double down on our core values and educational philosophy: close personal relationships between professors and students in a residential community — a true distinction — that an online education can never replace. With that philosophy in mind, a growing number of our professors are utilizing and discussing technology in increasingly creative and intriguing ways.
In fact, I will be co-teaching a new course this spring semester with computer science professor Vijay Ramachandran that will touch upon this very issue. The course, called Technology and Disruption, will focus on the effects of technological developments (e.g., social media, digital content, and “big data”) on our society and the structure of the economy. We will examine who benefits — and suffers — from disruption, the prospects for “brick-and-mortar” institutions (including universities), and possible future patterns of disruption. Our students will then spend the summer in Palo Alto, Calif., working in paid internships with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and attending lectures on related topics.
We are also experimenting with online education. The highly successful Living Writers Online course offered to parents and alumni last fall (see pg. 14) revealed a hunger among the greater Colgate community to be engaged in the exciting intellectual exchanges that occur on campus. Lessons learned from that venture are informing future uses of technology. We are now discussing ways to significantly expand the online audience for Living Writers and other courses as well as extracurricular programs like the Thought Into Action entrepreneurial institute.
As we navigate the extremely exciting landscape created by technological advances, we will remain anchored to an educational model stressing the close interaction between professor and student that, far from being outdated, will allow us to continue as a great and distinctive school.