This blog post also appeared in the Huffington Post on January 31, 2013.
Pick up any publication or article dealing with the future of higher education and you will be sure to read about online learning and its potential to change education—higher education in particular—in dramatic ways. Some have even suggested that online learning will make residential colleges like Gettysburg obsolete in the not-too-distant future.
Over the last few years we have seen the development of free massive open online courses (MOOCs) by some of the best research universities in the country. Thousands of people from all over the world are signing up for these courses, but only a small percentage (usually in the single digits) complete them. The term flipped classroom has entered the lexicon and refers to classes in which students watch recorded lectures on their own time and then come to class prepared to work on problems and engage in discussion. Blended learning denotes a hybrid approach that combines traditional classroom teaching with online offerings.
But what does any of this mean for a residential liberal arts college like Gettysburg?
I feel certain that it does not mean that these experiences will replace liberal arts colleges. It does mean that we are in for an exciting time where thoughtful and creative uses of technology and communication tools will facilitate an extension and enrichment of teaching and learning. These developments have the potential to augment the residential liberal arts college experience in ways we could not have imagined 20 years ago. At Gettysburg we are already experimenting with and integrating some of these new ideas into the work we do.
For example, students on Gettysburg’s campus who enrolled in a class on Turkish politics met and collaborated virtually with students in a parallel course being offered at a Turkish university. A Gettysburg student took the “Machine Learning” MOOC offered by Stanford as an independent study and was supervised, tutored, and evaluated by one of our professors. In a computer science capstone course for seniors last fall, two professors used online materials from Cornell and MIT to stimulate classroom discussion and create a blended learning environment. And where better to introduce a flipped classroom than at a liberal arts college – where students are expected to prepare for class on their own time and participate in class discussions and problem solving. That concept hardly seems revolutionary.
I’m fascinated by and enthusiastic about the potential for new uses of technology in higher education. It’s our responsibility to make the most of these innovations, to engage our students in new ways and to expand the classroom in new directions. Online courses will enable some to take classes who might not otherwise have access. The use of technology will continue to enrich and expand the opportunities for learners of all ages – and open some new, interesting doors.
Let’s also remember that there are other aspects of our learning environment that are not so easily replaced online: living together in a community, working side by side with a professor in a lab, competing on a sports team, engaging in public service and issues of social justice, delivering a presentation, participating in experiential learning activities such as wilderness training, performing on stage, being mentored by a faculty member, and making connections and friendships that last a lifetime. These are the types of experiences that our residential liberal arts college offers that are simply unavailable online.
The education offered at Gettysburg goes beyond the delivery of content and the earning of a credential. Gettysburg College is truly a 24/7 experience that transforms young people. We aspire to prepare leaders – students who are ready to take effective action and make a positive impact in their communities and in their professions.
Carrying out that mission is going to take more than a MOOC.