Why Liberal Arts Colleges Are Scared of MOOCs

Although massive open online courses — also known as MOOCs — started populating scattered sections of the Internet roughly around 2008, 2012 bore witness to the structure’s acknowledgement on a more mainstream level. No longer the exclusive domain of edupunks and schools like MIT and Stanford, known for their enthusiastic experimenting when it comes to welding technology and education, their increased visibility means a wider number of institutions turn toward them for various reasons. Some love the decreased costs associated with bringing hundreds (if not thousands) of online students together, others the sheer levels of diversity available. In fact, University of Colorado recently announced a partnership accepting credits from certain computer science courses offered by MOOC juggernaut Udacity. Obviously, nobody knows whether this “hot new craze that’s sweeping the nation(s)” will wind up a cherished classic like a waltz or the, uh, Macarena. But high-profile grants by the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation now test their ultimate efficacy, as well as researching the strategies that could improve upon the areas where MOOCs fail.

And MOOCs do fail. Some critics point to their bloated capacity as their greatest asset and their most glaring weakness. For liberal arts schools such as Wesleyan and Wellesley College, which recently opened themselves up to collaborations with Coursera and edX, respectively, class size marked their most major concern. Understandably so; liberal arts colleges thrive among kids who prefer learning with the smallest teacher-to-student ratios possible. “Massive” comes built right there in the movement’s name. Although the involved disciplines thrive thanks to diverse perspectives, questions over just how many enrollees will receive arise with hundreds of them available. Not to mention comparatively minimized time to actually share said diverse perspectives.

Other criticisms overlap with those levied on online courses themselves. Because they cater to remote enrollees, MOOCs feature a comparatively more hands off approach than the traditional classroom. For the liberal arts, this turns the lively, off-the-cuff seminar discussions essential to the experience into something considerably less interactive. Bryn Mawr, using some of the aforementioned funding by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, currently experiments with psychology MOOCs and hopes to find a viable solution to this understandable issue. Even more disconcerting to the liberal arts (more specifically, the humanities) professors out there, the transition toward MOOCs centering on technology wind up sparking debates on ethics. Invisibility in these realms denies students the philosophical skills necessary to weigh their decisions and choose the most honest, respectful options. So when liberal arts schools start dabbling in the world of massive online classes, it restores balance to The Force.

If The Rise Of The MOOCs predicated the collapse of private liberal arts institutions, it would likely shock pretty much everyone. But it might come to pass that these schools must practice more flexibility than before in order to address demand. Despite the critiques, not all turn away from the new(ish) development, as evidenced by the few notables (Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and Wellesley) deliberately searching for a happy harmony. In the case of Bryn Mawr, they found the results of their initial dabblings encouraging. Wesleyan and Wellesley’s respective partnerships reflect openness to courting technological advances in education, despite initial hesitations. It’s entirely possible, if not plausible, that these experiments might eventually yield some perfectly legitimate answers to the usual issues of incorporating the liberal arts into a MOOC setting.