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Mooc-covered towers? Online education's coming impact on traditional colleges

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Scott D. Miller Scott D. Miller
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Scott D. Miller is president and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies at Bethany College. A graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College, he has served as president of three private liberal arts colleges during the past 22 years.

When I recently mentioned to some higher-education colleagues my concern about MOOCs, I was astonished that none of them seemed to know what I was talking about.

They ignore MOOCs at their peril. Here's why: MOOCs, or "massive open online courses," reflect the continuing emergence and influence of consumer demand in the traditional higher education arena, with a technological vengeance. For years, colleges have been responding to rising student expectations — building new and more deluxe student centers, remodeling residence halls, adding food courts and fitness centers and going wireless campus-wide. Such physical changes, along with revisions of curriculum and addition of innovative student-support programs, have been necessary to position colleges and universities for financial stability in tough enrollment markets. The student consumer no longer simply responds to campus planning; he or she increasingly directs it.

This is especially true with the latest online courses, the availability of which will affect profoundly every traditional institution's strategic planning for years to come. MOOCs differ from older for-profit distance-learning programs in several ways. Often more rigorous and offering highly motivated students a fast track to completing their undergraduate educations, MOOCs allow students to move more quickly into graduate programs and the career marketplace. Many are offered from elite institutions tuition-free, which especially appeals to veterans and other non-traditional learners who constitute the fastest-growing demographic segment in higher education today. MOOCs also have a natural, traditional-aged student fan base, reflecting the fact that for nearly a generation, students from pre-school to high school have already been learning online.

What are the implications for traditional, residential colleges and universities? For openers, MOOCs pose some complex questions: What MOOC credits are transferable? From which other institutions will we accept them? How and by whom will such courses be evaluated for equivalency and quality with existing courses and degree requirements?

Then there is the simple fact of finance. If a student expects to transfer, say, 30 credits of online coursework toward a bachelor's degree at a residential institution, won't that college or university confront a corresponding drop in revenues? At the very least, that student may opt to enroll at a campus that will accept those credits.

Advantages also abound for those colleges that find a way to incorporate MOOCs into their curriculum.  At Bethany College, students can now take summer online courses through Bethany's participation in the Online Consortium of Independent Colleges and Universities. With up to 12 credit hours to choose from, this program enhances Bethany's course offerings and availability to students. And for institutions seeking a neat new marketing angle to attract young faculty as well as students, MOOCs may be the right strategy.

Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, a California-based virtual learning community, points out in a Jan. 24 piece for Inside Higher Ed that while MOOCs "are still the wild west of higher education, and there is no ‘one size fits all' approach" to developing them, he and his colleagues are "reimagining many aspects of what it means to teach a course, ranging from lecture delivery, to assignments, to strategies for engaging the online community of students."

As with many technological issues of our time, however, institutional practice must keep pace — if it can — with electronic applications and options. In addition to what and how many virtual courses will be accepted and from what institutions, the time required to evaluate these courses will be of great concern to faculty and administrators. Few precedents exist now for such evaluation, though as Coursera's Ng notes, MOOCs offer abundant opportunities for faculty collaboration and mutual mentoring.

Despite such advantages, however, colleges and universities are notoriously slow to change their curricula. Even small private colleges such as Bethany, which can often move fast to embrace innovative opportunities like MOOCs, may encounter resistance by traditionalists as proposed curricular adaptations crawl through campus committees.

Nevertheless, significant expansion of distance learning, especially when coupled with continuing education programs, offer increased marketing possibilities for even the most traditional campuses. I trust that a substantial number of students will continue to seek the residential, classroom-based college experience. My college, Bethany, has survived greater challenges than MOOCs in its nearly 173-year history, and the strength of our academic reputation and devoted faculty will always recommend us a top choice for college freshmen.

The challenge is to figure out how to embrace MOOCs and other technological innovations so that they best complement, not replace, that primary and original learning experience.