Sunday, July 21, 2013

Learning at Westminster comes to a close

After seven years, five different jobs, and nearly 300 blog posts, I am ending Learning at Westminster.  Tomorrow I start work as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Barton College in Wilson, NC.

My thanks to my friends and colleagues who have read and commented on the posts that preceded this one.  And even more, my thanks to those people at Westminster and beyond, who have made my life, the lives of my family members, and Westminster College better.  My love and gratitude to all of you.

I will take up blogging again at, with posts focused primarily on helping to build a case for small colleges that extends beyond the "small class size" and "personalized attention" arguments that are at the heart of most defenses of the small college.

Best wishes to all of you,
Gary Daynes

Friday, July 5, 2013

Does nostalgia for the 1960s drive MOOCs?

I am not, in this post, primarily concerned with whether MOOCs are good things.  Rather, I am interested in an assumption shared by both fans and foes of MOOCs--that they are innovative.  If innovation is understood to mean using the internet to do something that in the past was done without the internet, then MOOCs are innovative.  But in three essential ways MOOCs are nostalgic, not innovative.  They embrace major assumptions about learning and about institutional quality that were held true in the 1960s, but are no longer assumed today.

  1. MOOCs recall the dream that huge numbers of students can learn from a single professor. This idea has been part of American higher education since the explosion of college enrollment after World War II.  It gained strength in the 1960s with the creation of public television, and again in the 1980s with the expansion of the television spectrum that allowed the creation of public-access television.  Today thousands of people earn college credit by watching televised lectures in Utah and then taking exams at remote locations.  The same surely happens in other states. (It happens in traditional classrooms as well. My own first opportunity as a college professor--a one-year contract at BYU--was to teach a class with an enrollment of 2700 students, who attended lectures in groups of 900 twice as week and then a discussion section of 30 once a week, led by a TA.  Students took exams in a massive testing center.)   These courses are not educational disasters for every student.  But any student who learns deeply in such a class must be highly motivated, since it is almost impossible to include any of the "high-impact practices" that deepen student understanding and help them connect the classroom to the real world. High-impact practices do not demand tiny classes.  But they do require regular, consistent interaction between faculty and students. And the require the recognition that students are human beings, whose approaches to learning, backgrounds, skills, and character vary widely. Enormous classes of all sorts are nostalgic for an approach to education that could ignore these facts, and instead treat students as an undifferentiated mass. 
  2. MOOCs imagine that the "best" professors are those employed by research institutions. Advocates of MOOCs argue that they are merely providing the "best professors" teaching the "best content" in the world. Those professors are uniformly found at research universities, since the major MOOC providers are contracting almost exclusively with Research I institutions.  In so doing, they look back to a time before faculty at Research I institutions lifted research excellence over teaching excellence as the basis of tenure.  It may have been in the 1960s that one could reasonably assume that faculty at  research universities were outstanding teachers.  But that is no longer the case.  Nor is it the case that research excellence guarantees teaching effectiveness. 
  3. MOOCs look back to a time when top-tier American research universities set the higher education agenda for the world.  In the 1960s, with a few European exceptions, the best universities in the world were in the United States.  While it is still the case that American universities are at the very top of major global rankings, more and more top universities from outside the US are rising in the rankings. What is more, a series of studies suggest that students who graduate from top-tier universities have not learned more and are not more likely to succeed after graduation than their peers at less prestigious institutions.
MOOCs might be an important part of the future of education.  But if that is to be the case, their advocates and designers need to ensure that their approach to learning becomes as current as their approach to the internet.