Coming to Terms with MOOCs: A Community College Angle

When MIT approached Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) to participate in edX, the new Harvard/MIT massive open online course (MOOC) initiative, we reacted with both interest and skepticism. What did MIT have in mind for Bunker Hill Community College? How would edX “transform the way that community college students learn” as edX President Anant Agarwal claimed, when he discussed the likely impact of MOOCs upon both Bunker Hill Community College and Massachusetts Bay Community College, the two institutions invited to participate in this experiment?
Innovative programming and instructional experimentation has characterized Bunker Hill Community College’s approach to teaching and learning since its inception. In the 1970s, BHCC pioneered its Center for Self Directed Learning, affording students opportunities to learn at their own pace and in their own style. The community college has been offering online courses since 1997 and grown this enterprise so that today, 4,000 of its more than 13,500 students take at least one online course. While most of the online offerings follow a traditional lecture format, BHCC’s online nursing degree program features a hybrid configuration. That is, students learn content online and this is supplemented by in-class instruction and the requisite clinical experiences in a healthcare setting.

Today at BHCC, the establishment of “Learning Communities” transforms traditional classrooms into peer-focused collaborative ventures based on commonly shared experiences. In five years, learning communities have become a central and unifying feature of teaching and learning at BHCC, currently involving more than one third of the student body. The goal is to make every class a learning community in the next five years and to strengthen the complementary relationship between hybrid online offerings and learning community courses.

Building further upon learning community successes, BHCC’s newest initiative, “Life Map” seeks nothing less than to empower students to chart their own futures with individualized pathways. Both virtual and physical spaces are used. A new portal enables students to do everything from sharing learning experiences and creating e-portfolios to whatever advances the probability of their success and degree completion. The Life Map Center brings services such as face-to-face advising to students to complement the portal.

It is against this dynamic backdrop of multiple and intersecting, virtual and real-time learning experiments that BHCC considered MIT’s offer. With critical support from the Gates Foundation, Bunker Hill and Mass Bay community colleges will offer a MOOC adaptation of MIT’s popular Introduction to Computer Science and Programming course at each of their campuses. Selected faculty members at the two community colleges will undergo professional development opportunities to strengthen their ability to teach a massive open online course successfully for community college students. An integral feature of the collaboration will be the design and pilot testing of assessment tools to determine both benefits and challenges associated with employing MOOCs at the community colleges. Supplementing the MIT online instruction and course materials, students will meet collectively twice weekly with community college faculty. These classroom meetings will focus on communal course problem-solving and help students to complete assignments, which would ordinarily be considered homework in a typical classroom environment. This strategy has been used elsewhere and is commonly referred to as a “flipped class,” because the online lectures replace traditional homework, while the flipped course’s homework is done during the time students spend in class.

Other major differences between MIT’s MOOC offerings and that of the two participating community colleges are of a more logistical nature. For instance, MOOCs are available to anyone and they are free. Students do not receive credit for completing a MOOC, although MIT does give a certificate. With the community college edX experiment, students will register and pay for the courses. In return, they will earn college credit.

The sheer number of individuals worldwide who are able to participate in a MOOC promises an accessibility to education for almost everyone everywhere—a mindboggling phenomenon. One can imagine educational opportunities and benefits with neither fiscal constraints nor physical boundaries. This vision of fully accessible democratized learning is one logical extension of a core value of community colleges. However, as Utopian as its originators would have us believe it to be, MOOCs purported reinvention of higher education must and will go through a myriad of difficult, soul-searching and, yes, profit-driven considerations and questions if this model for large-scale online instruction is to reach the full potential to which its creators and advocates aspire.

For community colleges, it is difficult to imagine that MOOCs can make a significant contribution to the college mission without being successfully adapted to incorporate the human interaction, assistance and sense of communal learning that says, “We are all in this together.” These hallmarks of Bunker Hill’s learning community courses have already demonstrated a 32% increase in student persistence rates. In contrast, traditional MOOCs’ persistence rates often are in single digits.

Another issue involves the academic preparation of students to do college-level work. Universities frequently bemoan the inadequate mathematics and English writing skills of entering students. At community colleges, even more students arrive needing developmental coursework. Some institutions are designing MOOCs precisely to bridge these skill gaps. Yet, the persistence of developmental students will likely remain a problem even with extensive support by faculty and interaction with fellow students. The lack of a classroom environment may make MOOCs less effective with this student population.

The non-credit, grade-free nature of traditional MOOCs begs the question of how student performance will be assessed. This issue is of particular significance to community colleges when assisting students to transfer both into and out of other colleges and universities, as well as when needing to demonstrate student skills to prospective employers.

Community colleges comprise a unique sector of higher education focused on the teaching and learning process. They have their own history, mission and diverse student populations, each member of which has distinct needs and aspirations. Further, community colleges have developed a considerable body of empirical knowledge and hands-on experience in providing effective pedagogical experiences. In communities across America, these institutions provide centers for lifelong learning, both by degrees and community education courses. Considering this context, MOOCs are unlikely to completely reinvent community college education or, for that matter, any other sector of higher education, as their most ardent proponents have argued. On the other hand, they have in their early use, demonstrated enough potential in expanding access and learning options to be considered more than a fad as critics of MOOCs have warned.

Before MOOCs can completely fulfill their potential, they need to be seen less as new “technological marvels” or lucrative opportunities for entrepreneurs. Perhaps they are better viewed by community colleges as new potentially valuable teaching models to be integrated with other complementary strategies of already proven worth. As such, they need to be rigorously evaluated and modified as warranted to improve educational outcomes. Only then will MOOCs find their proper niche in facilitating the critical mission of America’s community colleges.

Mary L. Fifield has been president of Bunker Hill Community College since 1997. She announced in September that she will retire as president on June 30, 2013.


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