By Paul Glader
PHILADELPHIA – Ivy League school officials suggest that one of the biggest impacts of massive online open courses – MOOCs – could be a renewed focus on teaching over research at elite American universities.
“Coursera already is affecting our campus,” said Jeffrey Himpele, associate director of the McGraw Hill Center for Teaching and Learning at Princeton University, which aims to improve teaching at Princeton University. He’s also a documentary filmmaker, professor in media and anthropology and an author.
He says many faculty members have been more focused on research instead of teaching in the past. Open education classes are changing that. Because of MOOCs and Princeton’s upcoming participation in Coursera, “The conversations about teaching (at Princeton) have gone from 0 to 60 on our campus,” he says. Princeton faculty who used to brush off discussions geared toward improving their teaching are now eager to have such discussions, he says.
“It really is the ability to reach tens of thousands of students,” Himpele said, during a panel discussion at the Education Writer’s Association annual meeting in Philadelphia on Thursday. “They’re aware of their own role in the classroom in a way they were not before.”
The first Coursera course launches in a month at Princeton and already has 20,000 students signed up for it.
Himpele says the MOOC courses are also forcing professors and universities to rethink the traditional 60 or 90 minute lecture structure for classes. Princeton’s upcoming Coursera course uses a 50 minute lecture format, broken into several 12-minute parts with quizzes in between.
“After 12 minutes in a lecture hall, student attention falls off a cliff,” he says. He said professors at Princeton are now radically rethinking how they teach this coming fall. “They are thinking about it from the point of view of their students.”
Some are considering ways to flip their lectures, having students go over some basic material at home and going with a more engaging, discussion-oriented setting in class. “A year ago, to flip a lecture would have required a lot of twisting of arms,” he said.
At the panel discussion on MOOC courses, other experts and faculty expressed more skepticism at the impact of MOOCs on top schools and the traditional college system.
Dr. Peter Struck, an associate professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, is teaching a Coursera class on classics and mythology. He compares online teaching to hosting a TV show rather than a classroom, which functions more like a play. His upcoming Coursera class has 14,000 student signed up already and counting.
“This is thrilling!” he said. “Being the center of attention has never been a problem for me.”
Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector in Washington DC, said the fact that Harvard University – which was absent from open educational resources for some time – recently teamed up with MIT on edX is significant. “I can only assume that Harvard University decided to do this because they felt they were being left behind,” he said. Competition among MOOC providers is a driving factor right now, he says.
Carey sees MOOCs setting up a power struggle between the two coasts of knowledge power – the West Coast, Silicon Valley-based tech sector and the DC to Boston corridor of Ivy League and elite colleges. “I’m not sure who will end up running the place,” he says. “Colleges don’t have a monopoly on expertise.”
Meanwhile, Joshua Kim, director of learning and technology in a program at Dartmouth College, identifies himself as a MOOC skeptic. He thinks the idea is trendy at the moment and a way for colleges – especially elite institutions – to bolster their PR and further the argument they are doing good in the world . But a MOOC focus, he thinks, can drain the resources and attention within a university to what it should be doing.
University of Pennsylvania Professor Peter Struck shares his thoughts on what MOOCs will do, won’t do and might do:
What MOOCs Will do:
1) Will make the TV show class free to people.
2) It will allow professors and colleges to be better than the history channel at providing knowledge on history and other topics.
3) It will allow some real pedagogical advances, challenging the notion of a 50 minute lecture. While his Coursera segments range from 7 to 15 minutes in length, Struck notes, that “the long narrative arc is sometimes the critical component to convey in my class.”
What MOOCs Won’t do:
1) Won’t revamp higher education as we know it. “I just don’t think that’s in the cards, Struck says.
2) It won’t kill the lecture completely.
3) Won’t democratize knowledge the way some think it will.
What MOOCs Might Do:
1) Expand wisdom.
2) Broaden empathy – understanding of what other people are feeling.
3) I don’t know, if in the aggregate, it will make us smarter.
4) I’m not sure if it will make teaching a more important part of self definition.
5) It might add to the credentialing frenzy of high school students who want to go to a Princeton or University of Pennsylvania, who see MOOC badges as another way to demonstrate their achievement, similar to AP classes.