The Online Course Tsunami (3)

In the first two posts in this thread, I asked a series of questions about how we might assess both the learning that takes place in online courses and the economic impact of a shift to online courses, especially at a university like mine. Today I want to turn to a consideration of the broader impact of the current mania for online learning on our curricula.

After all, what universities offer students, at least in the intellectual realm, is a curriculum. Start ups, like Coursera and Udacity are offering courses. Of course, one day these platforms might offer entire curricula, but I’m more than happy to bet $50 that most universities will resist offering more than a basket of courses through these sites for the simple reason that our business models at the bricks and mortar universities are predicated on more than tuition revenues. We want students to live in our residence halls, buy food from our food services, pay for parking, and all those other ancillary revenue generators we’ve found to make ends meet.

It’s fine for a business like the University of Phoenix to offer only courses, because their business model was always based on tuition revenue (and possibly other sources such as advertising revenue). Also, the online only universities are not stuck with the fixed overhead factor called tenure. They can upsize or downsize their faculty at will. But the bricks and mortar institutions have physical plants to maintain (and rent out to students) and faculty like me who they are stuck with until we retire.

So, for the foreseeable future, the bricks and mortar institutions are going to be in the curriculum business, not the course business.

What, then, will happen to our curricula if our students begin taking lots of courses–likely introductory courses–through online shops like those just mentioned? While we might thumb our noses at upstarts like the University of Phoenix, can we really tell our students, “Sorry. We can’t accept that online course you took from Harvard/Virginia/Rice through Coursera.”

At George Mason, given our current “study elsewhere” policy, we’ll have to do just that unless our students, once they matriculate, receive prior permission to take these courses, and, according to the policy, those courses must not be available at our institution. Examples of how we grant students permission to study elsewhere are when they are at home during the summer (away from our immediate area) and wish to take a course from their local institution, or if they want to take American Sign Language, which we do not offer. Otherwise, they have to take the credits from us once they have matriculated. At a minimum, this policy will have to change for our students to take advantage of the offerings from vendors such as Coursera.

But more important than a policy shift is the question of what happens to our majors when our students take their basic courses from an online vendor?

History is always a particularly difficult curriculum to structure, especially at a university such as Mason where half our undergraduate students come to us as transfers. It is relatively easy to assume what our students do or do not know when they sign up for a 100-level course (we assume they know next to nothing). But what about an upper level course such as the survey of modern Eastern Europe I’ll be teaching this fall?

If I were teaching a 300 level mathematics or Arabic course, I would already have a pretty good idea of where my students are with the curriculum because they have proceeded through a sequence of courses to get to mine. Not so this August when I meet the students signed up for my East Europe course. I have to spend the first week or so gauging what they know and don’t know before I can really get going. That’s a week I am loathe to give up. As it is, I have to make it from the 1890s to the early 2000s in just 14 weeks.

Because we have a very good working relationship with our local community college systems, I know that whether these students have taken their introductory European history course from one of those colleges or from us, they will arrive in my classroom having taken relatively similar courses. But if those students have taken their introductory European history course from any one of a dozen or more institutions, I’ll have no idea whatsoever about their prior knowledge and skills.

Will such a situation ruin my course? Definitely not. But it will cost me at least an additional week trying to figure out what they know and don’t.

Then there is the question of departmental culture. Different academic departments lay out their curricula to emphasize particular skills or canons and therefore work together (generally) to inculcate these ideas and skills in their students. But if our students come to us with what amounts to a willy-nilly set of academic experiences, those common assumptions and priorities we have developed and (generally) agreed to over time may well not be a part of their academic repertoire.

The course I’m teaching this fall includes learning opportunities that help to reenforce my department’s notions of such things as the importance of analyzing primary sources from a diverse set of perspectives. If the instructor(s) of those online courses either disagree with these notions or simply provide no opportunity for students to develop such skills, then the exercises I have laid out in my syllabus will be that much more difficult for my students.

None of these issues are nearly as worrisome as what the advent of these online shops will mean for our fiscal future (see post #2 in this series), but if the online course tsunami does come ashore at the campuses where 80-85% of college students are being taught (community colleges and mass market universities such as Mason), we need to spend some time rethinking our curricula (and academic policies) to keep from being washed out to sea.

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  1. Pingback: MOOCs: A reader’s digest | Kenneth Nyberg

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