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2012 December 10 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Invasion of the MOOCs

Photo courtesy Bunker Hill Community College

The MOOC partnership between edX and two Massachusetts community colleges will include both Internet-based and classroom components.

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

Invasion of the MOOCs
Community Colleges Seek Best of Both Worlds
In Embrace of Internet-Based Courses

By Paul Bradley

Only a year ago, hardly anyone knew the term MOOC — short for massive open online courses. But the Internet-based courses offered by elite universities through Coursera, by edX, a consortium led by Harvard and MIT, and by other groups, have grown exponentially over the past 12 months, with some classes attracting hundreds of thousands of students from around the world.

Since MOOCs exploded on the higher education scene, university presidents have busied themselves figuring out how to monetize the MOOC (classes mostly are now offered free of charge) or contemplating whether students should get academic credit for them (that’s not now the case).

Community colleges, meanwhile, were left standing at the platform as the MOOC train whizzed by.

But MOOCs will soon arrive at community colleges, with a twist. A new partnership between edX and two Massachusetts community colleges not only embraces MOOCs, but also aims to answer critical questions about them: will MOOCs merely expand access to good instruction, or can they truly improve student success, which both happen to be essential components of the community college mission?

Supported with a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bunker Hill Community College and MassBay Community College next month will offer an adapted version of MIT’s popular Introduction to Computer Science and Programming course at their respective campuses.

But the courses will differ significantly from the MOOC model that has so captured the imagination of colleges and universities. First of all, they are not free; the Massachusetts students will pay the normal tuition at the two colleges ($562 for in-state students, $1,180 for non-residents). Secondly, enrollment will be limited to 20 students on each campus, the better to assess the successes or failings of the initiative through applied research, and make needed adjustments. Students who successfully complete the course will earn three academic credits.

Most importantly, the courses will be taught using a blended, hybrid approach which addresses the peculiar needs of community college students. Rather then working in isolation in front of a laptop, and perhaps interacting with virtual classmates, the material from MIT will be supplemented with regular instruction from community college instructors in the classroom.

The goal is to combine the rich content of one of the world’s top universities with the dedication to teaching that so characterizes community colleges — the best of both worlds.

“Community college professors are both teachers and mentors to our students,” said MassBay Community College President John O’Donnell. “The blended classroom model allows our professors greater one-on-one contact with our students, allowing for greater course content mastery and application.”

Community colleges today face tremendous challenges to educate more students than ever — a significant number of who are underprepared — in an era of decreased budgets. The colleges remain an important path for students from low-income backgrounds. At the same time, colleges are under pressure to improve student performance outcomes. For many states, this “new normal” is creating a ripe environment for innovation and sweeping reform.

The edX community college initiative is the latest iteration of that reform effort, with the potential to allow financially strapped community colleges to leverage quality content at minimal cost.

“Our technology and innovative teaching methods have the potential to transform the way community college students learn, both in an out of the classroom,” said Anant Agarwal, president of edX. “Our work with Bunker Hill and MassBay will enable us to work with other state institutions throughout the country to provide excellent educational opportunities on an ever-tightening budget.”

Said Dan Greenstein, director of postsecondary success at the Gates Foundation: “MOOCS are an exciting innovation. They hold great promise, but are not without challenges, and we are still discovering their full potential…we are eager to learn from and share the data that will be generated from these investments in MOOCs.”

Indeed, questions persist about whether MOOCs represent a transformational development for higher education or are just another fad. They are so new that there is no evidence they improve student outcomes, though the American Council on Education has embarked on research to assess whether MOOCs are worthy of academic credit.

Critics say that while MOOCs make knowledge delivered by prestigious university faculty widely available, availability of knowledge is not the same as learning. In their current form, MOOCs do nothing to remediate the deficiencies of K-12 education or improve college readiness. Neither do MOOCs address the plethora of needs that bedevil community college students: health services, counseling, academic advising, child care, financial coaching and more.

For community colleges, however, MOOCs have great potential for improving access and eliminating bottlenecks in important introductory courses, MassBay’s O’Donnell said. He likens the potential of MOOCs to that of the GI Bill and Pell Grants — historic initiatives that significantly democratized higher education.

“I think the MOOC model has great promise,” he said. “We are talking about the delivery of content. It’s very high-quality instruction. The part that needs to be measured is testing, assessment and mentoring.”

“I think we’ll look back in 20 years and see that this was a turning point in higher education.”

The Gates-funded initiative also embraces a new approach to education and learning, striving to bridge a high-tech educational divide by standing the traditional education model on its head.

Under the old model, the sage-on-the-stage delivered a lecture and dispatched students to do assignments on their own. Under this new approach, students attend virtual lectures on their own, and then work on assignments in class with the help of an instructor.

The flipped model has several inherent advantages over the conventional approach. The average quality of the lecturers is higher. In addition, students can scroll back, or fast forward and learn at their own speed, which they can’t do in a live lecture. Finally, because of the classroom component, students will have the chance to get their questions answered.

The new model also is an acknowledgement that the current generation of students, and those who will soon be of college age, learns differently and consumes information differently than do their elders. For many young people, email is a thing of the past and a mobile device is a constant companion. The old distance learning approach just won’t do for these students.

“I think the MOOCs can be very valuable because of the interactive environment that today’s students are so accustomed to,” said Bunker Hill Community College President Mary Fifield. “The material is quick, immediate and engaging, just like the media that young people are hooked on today. They also mesh very well with the open access environment of community colleges.”

There are other reasons to like MOOCs, Fifield said.

“It’s not all that common that a place like MIT forms a partnership with a community college,” she said. “That’s really positive. That’s a good thing.”

Fifield’s enthusiasm is tempered by a concern that community colleges, in the rush to embrace MOOCs, could compromise the things that distinguish them from the rest of higher education.

“We in community colleges believe strongly in customized interactions,” she said. “It is those individual connections that make us different. To what extent are we going to be smart enough to capitalize on what technology can bring us without losing that personal touch? That’s an important discussion to have.”

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