Using MOOCs to raise the bar

A recent article about how MOOCs might, in fact, increase and not decrease costs on college campuses has been getting a fair bit of attention for its argument that the large lecture classes that it replaces were already the cost-saving venues of higher education and many of the proposals for integrating MOOCs well involve replacing these cost-efficient large classes with free MOOCs and then expensive associated mentoring. Additionally, it observes that even if a college doesn’t choose to incorporate MOOCs, the fact that they exist may make students less tolerant of paying tuition for large lecture courses.

The quote that jumped out at me, though, came in the middle of this argument:

The large lecture class is efficient, with a low per-student cost as the expense of the instructor resource is spread across so many students. Every institution of higher learning would love to only have small classes, but the economics simply don’t work. Faculty are too expensive. The large lecture class subsidizes everything else.

Except, unless I’m interpreting the definition of “large” and “small” incorrectly here, I’m pretty sure that I went to a college with only small classes, and currently teach at a college with only small classes. The article’s assertion that MOOCs will lead to a shift where undergraduate education must be personal and interactive is at the same time a suggestion that there will be a strong and possibly growing market for the small, liberal arts college experience.

Of course, that requires a lot of education about what that experience really is, and how much it differs from what many people assume a college experience must be. And, as the article notes, it isn’t cheap – certainly not as cheap as MOOCs can be. But it seems that perhaps the national discussion about MOOCs can be a real opportunity to communicate those differences.

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