MOOCs and the Future of the Liberal Arts

This past week I was finally able to attend a hangout hosted by Bryan Alexander. The topic of discussion was MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and open education. If you are not familiar with MOOCs then you might want to look at a few examples: Udacity and DS106. The participants in the hangout came from a variety of institutions and backgrounds and had a very lively discussion.

I believe that I got the ball rolling by stating that I thought MOOCs pose a real threat to all colleges and universities but are a particular threat to liberal arts institutions. There are a couple of reasons for why I think MOOCs should be of greater concern to liberal arts institutions. The first is that they potentially represent an extremely low-cost options for obtaining skills. Note that I purposefully did not say education. I am not sure that participants are getting an education because I come from a liberal arts background and see an education as something more than learning how to do things. However, I am not sure that the general public sees the same distinction and thus the threat posed by MOOCs and similar endeavors.

A second threat is that they for the most part seem to ignore things like class standing, grades, and other educational benchmarks. They are OPEN and this is also something I think presents a particular threat to liberal arts institutions. Liberal arts institutions represent the Ivory Tower to many and of late it seems to me that the general populace is not sure they want an Ivory Tower locking away education.

I think both of these threats are exacerbated by the incredibly high cost of obtaining an education at a liberal arts institution. Wooster is charging $47,600.00 and the top ranked liberal arts college, Williams, is charging $54,560. Compare these figures to the median household income in the US which the Census reports to be about $50,000. Even when you figure in financial aid these prices will probably represent 50% of household income. How can this model continue to be viable? I’m not sure it can and I think MOOCs and other open educational resources will hasten the death of this model.

I think I said that in 10-15 years we would see the collapse of large numbers of liberal arts colleges, unless they can adapt. Sure there will be a few of the very prestigious institutions that survive and continue to serve the 1% of the population that can afford to attend. I’m not sure what will determine which institutions survive, but I am pretty certain we will not need more than 50 or so (maybe 75) liberal arts colleges with the traditional model. So to survive the other institutions will have to adopt a different model. One possibility is for them to develop a symbiotic relationship with open education resources. In such a relationship the faculty member is not responsible for delivering the content, that is handled through open educational resources. The faculty member is then responsible for developing challenging interactive activities and projects and for leading engaging discussions. I would imagine that such faculty would be asked to carry a load of 5-6 classes a semester or to average 11 classes a year. This would allow the institution to reduce the number of faculty and thus reduce overall costs.

The question is whether such an institution can still retain the soul of a liberal arts institution?

Update: In thinking further about what role the faculty would play, I think they would be the ones to provide context. I am not sure that OERs and MOOCs are great at providing a context for what a student is learning. Yesterday, while talking to a faculty member, I happened to visit Khan Academy and was presented with what seemed like hundreds of videos on Algebra. I sampled a few and most jumped right into the mechanics of the issue (factoring, solving an inequality, etc.). To me they were missing the why, the context. I don’t claim to have viewed every OER that is out there so I am sure some provide a context, but I would guess most do not. So I think successful faculty members will be the ones who can adapt to providing a rich context for the material being presented in OERs and I think liberal arts faculty are in the best position to adapt.

Thanks to Matt Gardzina for pointing out Barry Mills’ 2011 Convocation Address which touches on a number of the ideas floating around in this post.