THE BLOG

The Liberal Arts Contribution to edX

Mar 31, 2014 | Updated May 31, 2014

The hype cycle for MOOCs, or massive open online courses, has taken a full revolution, and the unbridled enthusiasm long expressed in the media has been reined in a good deal. Research released by edX and other massive online providers has reoriented our sense of the disrupted topography of higher education -- and where online education fits within it. Although long-held ambitions for unrestricted access to education are being realized, who is taking advantage of this access is surprising: these students are typically older, more formally educated and more likely to be omnivorous grazers than the younger, credential-seeking, content-acquiring students who were imagined as the primary consumers in this online educational ecosystem. MOOC users, at least so far, are readily described as intellectually curious.

This early finding about the broad-ranging inquisitiveness of edX students suggests that the residential liberal arts model that our institutions and many other liberal arts colleges have embodied for two centuries has something to contribute to the open online platform: promoting a wide exploration of knowledge and the reciprocal illumination of seemingly disparate disciplines through critical thinking, discourse and writing. For the traditional college-age students on our campuses, the liberal arts approach is preparation not for one career, but for multiple careers; education for meaningful work and a fulfilling life course in an evolving world. We are excited by the prospect of extending this education to the diverse student population engaging with open online platforms.

Conversely, we also believe that components of open online education will become resources for teaching in our residential model of intensive, student-faculty interaction. Faculty members at small, liberal arts institutions view continuous research and reflection on pedagogy as a critical endeavor that supports teaching excellence. Innovation is a constant in teaching; once-ubiquitous lectures are now interwoven with critical discussion, experiential and service learning, and faculty-student research. Classrooms now include the art museum, experimental farm, start-up company or refugee center. Exploring and innovating with digital technologies is simply an extension of what our faculty members have done for generations: demonstrating a longstanding commitment to student success, and the self-assurance of time-honored teaching excellence.

It is in this two-fold spirit -- what we can contribute to open online education, and what it can teach us about our teaching enterprise -- that Colgate and Hamilton are joining as contributing members in the edX consortium. Our two schools are doing so as partners, a unique arrangement in this evolving platform that exploits our proximity in upstate New York and our common commitments to teaching and scholarship. This partnership will produce technological collaboration through the sharing of IT staff and facilities. More significant, it creates opportunities for shared pedagogical reflection and analysis among faculty members on our two campuses.

Our liberal-arts institutions enter the open online environment with a number of clear goals. We are encouraged at the prospect of engaging our global alumni networks in a new, dynamic way, sustaining intellectual relationships with life-changing professors long after graduation. We also see tremendous potential for public scholarship and educational outreach, a highly motivating opportunity to many of our faculty members.

But whether directed to alumni or the world, the greatest potential benefit of our involvement with edX is that the Colgate and Hamilton professoriate will come to a better understanding of online educational technologies and their potential complementarities to on-campus, in-class pedagogies. The research-focused ethos of edX, a commitment to understanding how students learn and how pedagogical innovation can transform student learning, makes partnership with this online provider and its members a natural for our institutions, which valorize the teacher-scholar model as the highest academic professional calling.

Where this will lead, we are not sure; yet we embrace this learning process all the more for its uncertainty -- and promise. Moreover, we consider it essential that residential liberal arts institutions help shape the national discussion about online learning, and advocate the role of the liberal arts within this developing arena. No doubt the landscape will change and in a few years we will have a new context in which to orient. But we will do so with the confidence borne of faculty members who have gained first-hand experience, as professoriates who better understand the potential and pitfalls of online learning, and as institutions that have helped set the course for liberal arts in higher education's future.