Higher education has been all aflutter the past year or so about the transformative potential of online and/or distance education mediated through digital media. While the buzz on this topic has waxed and waned since the late 1990s (Web 0.1 for those old enough to remember), now there is some big money behind some of the more interesting attempts to harness that potential.
Nine million dollars in start up grants from the Gates Foundation really puts some oomph behind several of these efforts, most notably the MITx initiative. There is much to be admired in these projects, but it’s less clear to me what this all means for the humanities in general and history in particular. Yes, the MOOCs of the world are drawing in tens of thousands of virtual students for courses such as how to build your own search engine, and the Kahn Academy claims more than 160,000,000 lessons delivered thus far. But the vast majority of the content out there from these types of platforms is in the STEM disciplines.
If you are a professor at almost any college or university in the United States, you know that there are plenty of people on your campus, just as there are on mine, who believe that online/distance education is the future business model for higher education. It’s certainly an attractive one at a place like George Mason, because we are completely out of classroom space, with no relief in sight in the next decade, so if we could convince our students to just stay the heck away from campus, our space problems would be solved.
At this moment, in June 2012, I have no opinion one way or the other about whether online/distance education is really the future of our industry, or like Cold Fusion, it is and always will be the future solution to all our problems.
What I do know at this moment is that no one I’ve been able to find is engaged in serious assessment of the learning that is happening through these courses, especially as compared to other deliver models, whether they are traditional classroom models, or hybrid online/classroom delivery. Given that universities are already pumping untold millions of dollars in the rush to develop these sorts of courses and degrees, and new start ups are popping up almost weekly, it seems to me that we ought to try to figure out just what, if anything, is changing in our students’ learning.
After all, learning is the goal of teaching the last time I checked.
The good news is that, at least in the history business, we know something — a lot actually — about how to assess what and how our students are learning about the past. Those assessment models are not dependent on a particular delivery system and so they can quite easily be applied to the new courses/degrees that are surely to result from the Online Course Tsunami coming ashore on the historians’ coast.
My hope is that one of these big money foundations out there (Bill, Melinda, are you listening?) will set aside at least a little bit of their millions for some serious, scientific assessment of learning gains through these new course delivery systems. Then we’ll have a much better sense for how much time, effort, and emotional investment we ought to make in these models.