Can MOOCs Work with Liberal Arts?

NEJHE on Models that Will Change Higher Ed Forever

During any given semester at a liberal arts college like Wellesley, students may experience what will prove to be a transformational moment in their lives. A pre-med student from El Paso might come to Wellesley and publish research with her biochemistry professor. She might carry on impassioned debates beyond her political science seminar and into the dining halls—with classmates from all over the world who will become future colleagues and lifelong friends. And the conversational skills that she gains from an advanced French course might prepare her for a summer of humanitarian work in Haiti.

This is the reality of the liberal arts college environment: meaningful encounters with peers from very different backgrounds; small, discussion-based courses that foster creative, cross-disciplinary thinking; close relationships with professors and fellow students; and the daily challenge of understanding, synthesizing and thinking critically. In today’s complex, increasingly global and rapidly changing world, such an education is more valuable than ever. Yet historically, higher education has remained accessible to very few—at Wellesley, just 2,300 students each year.

Recently, the MOOC movement has offered a promising solution to this problem of limited access. edX, the platform developed by MIT and Harvard, enables anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection and the desire to learn to take world-class courses. In one semester, 7,000 students completed MITx’s course in Circuits and Electronics. The MOOC movement took off just last year, and scores of universities and companies have plunged into online learning with a pioneering enthusiasm.

Yet despite the large numbers, the solution remains incomplete. To date, the majority of online learning courses have been lecture-based, with most early MOOCs offered in STEM-oriented fields such as engineering and computer science. The question that we are grappling with is: How do we infuse the massive open online space with a responsive, collaborative and discussion-based learning experience—the kind of education that is truly transformative?

While the answer remains unclear, what we do know is that it will take not only technological advances, but pedagogical innovation, bold ideas, experimentation and vision to translate the sometimes intangible components of on-campus learning to the online landscape. It’s going to take a liberal arts approach, which entails creative synthesis of knowledge and data from a breadth of disciplines.

When Wellesley announced in December that it would be the first liberal arts college to join edX, we knew we were embarking on a great experiment. With this commitment, we underscored our confidence in the talent and creativity of Wellesley’s faculty. Wellesley’s purpose in joining edX is not merely to replicate the use that others have made of this platform, but to explore its potential in the hands of scholar-teachers dedicated to excellence in undergraduate education.

We plan to offer the first of WellesleyX courses in fall 2013, with others to follow in spring 2014 or thereafter. These offerings will not only provide opportunities to those who might not otherwise be able to afford or access a liberal arts education, but will also benefit on-campus students and alumnae. By partnering with other education leaders, Wellesley hopes to help shape the rapidly evolving online learning environment, as well as to explore ways to incorporate technology creatively and effectively in the classroom.

At its best, a liberal arts education is an awakening, an emancipation—it liberates and empowers. It offers not only content knowledge, but sparks the imagination required to think differently, to probe and seek solutions even when no answers are readily available. I think of Albert Einstein, who said, “Knowledge is limited; imagination encircles the world.” With WellesleyX, we envision women and men all over the globe empowered to imagine new possibilities, to keep asking questions, to reflect with open minds and to act with a sense of conviction. And if we can bring to life what we envision, we will have truly achieved a revolution in higher education.

Andrew Shennan is provost and dean of Wellesley College.


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