As the price of four-year public and private universities increases nationwide, online education companies are offering up massive open online courses — otherwise known as MOOCs — as a way to bring higher education to students who cannot afford the traditional campus experience.
Now, private colleges like Ithaca College are questioning their place in the rapidly changing arena of higher education.
In a letter from Ithaca College President Tom Rochon to college employees in February, he said, “We were particularly struck in the just-concluded Board meeting by the depth with which Trustees discussed the subject of online learning, including the rapid development of Massive Open Online Courses, as a threat to the residential college model.”
This comes as colleges and universities grapple with how to best embrace or compete with online education companies like Coursera and Udacity, which offer a range of online courses for free or at a low cost. Simultaneously, a student could take The Future of Humankind from a Rutgers University professor and the Introduction to Guitar by a Berklee School of Music instructor with thousands of other students across the globe.
Universities nationwide are now debating whether they should accept a student’s low-cost MOOC as an appropriate exchange for academic credit. In February, the American Council on Education endorsed five MOOCs for academic credit. Though the council has accepted five courses, colleges and universities ultimately have the final decision to accept or reject that credit. Currently, Ithaca College does not accept MOOC courses in exchange for academic credit.
Marisa Kelly, provost and vice president for educational affairs, said she does see MOOCs as a threat to some colleges and universities but a “less direct threat” to private, residential campuses like the college.
“Do I think that the students who are best suited for an experience at Ithaca College do as well in a MOOC-like environment? No, I don’t think so,” Kelly said. “That means that we ensure that we continue to provide the kind of holistic learning experience that students come here to engage in and that we do everything we can to reign in those costs.”
Coursera hosts classes from 62 universities, like Harvard, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Wesleyan University. Students can choose to take a course at their own pace or choose a class that follows a syllabus with specific deadlines. Registration just requires an email address and a password. There are more than two million students enrolled in Coursera courses, according to a Horizon 2013 Higher Education Report.
Jeff Selingo ’05, editor at large at the Chronicle of Higher Education and author of an upcoming book, titled “College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students,” said he doesn’t see MOOCs taking the place of traditional residential college. Instead, he said universities could use MOOCs as another reference point during the college admissions process or as an outlet for students to brush up on beginner knowledge in a particular subject.
“I don’t think they are a wholesale replacement for what a place like Ithaca College is doing,” he said.
Kelly said the college is not considering incorporating MOOCs into the curriculum, but it is focusing on ways it can develop a strategic plan for online learning for its own students. Kelly asked Rob Gearhart, assistant provost for online learning and extended studies at Ithaca College, to lead a committee to develop a set of guidelines for online learning at the college.
She said the college will focus on enhancing what’s best about its existing programs with online options while working to keep costs down.
“The direction we move with respect to online learning will be absolutely compatible with our mission as a residential comprehensive campus,” she said. “We are not interested in trying to change who we are but rather interested in seeing what is appropriate to adopt for Ithaca College.”
Richard Adelstein is one of six professors at Wesleyan University — a private liberal arts college with about 2,900 undergraduates — who teaches a MOOC on Coursera. To prepare for his course, Property and Liability: An Introduction to Law and Economics, Adelstein wrote powerpoints and scripts for 39 video lectures.
Though Adelstein said he spent between six and eight hours a week answering questions on the discussion boards and ensuring that quizzes worked properly, he said it was exciting that his course could reach more students than ever before — students who cannot afford classes at a traditional college or cannot travel to the campus to take them.
“In my entire life, I’ve taught 1,200 people this course material at Wesleyan, and in the last six weeks, 2,500 people have had the opportunity to watch a version of this same course,” he said. “That’s a very worthwhile thing, particularly since it’s free for them.”
Rob Flaherty, student body president, said students at the college’s online learning input meeting this semester were both willing and hesitant to incorporate MOOCs into the college’s curriculum and experience. If the college offered MOOCs to other students outside of the college, the college could broaden its reach without disrupting the residential learning model, Flaherty said.
“We have some stellar faculty here who people would be willing to take courses from who don’t go to Ithaca College,” he said. “Why doesn’t the college offer MOOCs to people outside the institution?”
Selingo said the rising costs of tuition and rapid changes in technology are prompting a “breaking point” for some sort of change.
“We’re about to see it in the next couple of years for certain types of colleges, where students and parents are going to say enough is enough,” he said.
Selingo said colleges should evaluate what they can best offer already, like strong faculty and student relationships, small class sizes or specialized residential learning opportunities, and enhance them.
“The college campus is not going away,” he said. “Institutions should look at all they’re doing on campus and double down on what is of high value and what is of high impact and then figure out how technology, whether it’s MOOCs or other types of technology, can help.”
Whatever the committee ultimately proposes, Gearhart said the plan must “embrace the culture and environment” of the college as a residential learning experience.
“We recognize and value that learning not only happens in the classroom, but it happens outside the classroom, and it’s all of those experiences together that stitch together your overall experience,” he said. “MOOCs are a great piece of the total learning experience, but they’re not the entire experience.”