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Reflections about the intersection of schools, libraries and technology.

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Why spend the money?

Posted by lpearle on 1 April 2013

The other night at dinner a friend mentioned a conversation she had with a former classmate.  My friend is one of the Class Agents for her small liberal arts college – in other words, she calls classmates and asks them to give – and she approached her classmate for this year’s donation.  That classmate’s response went something like this:

I live in [far away state].  My husband and I make a decent living but… we make too much to get good financial aid to send our daughter to [alma mater] and too little to afford to pay full price.  Why hasn’t [alma mater] started to move more into the online world so our daughter can get the [alma mater] education without having to be on campus?

Hmmm…. Ok, I see some of the point.  There’s been a lot of talk about MOOCs and their role in education, with several liberal arts schools (Wellesley, for example) starting to join in.  Rumor has it that “liberal arts colleges are scared of MOOCs“, while other articles talk about the challenges posed to the classic liberal arts education by MOOCs.  I can also understand who someone would want their child to have the wonderful college experience they had, but given the price of tuition (not including incidentals!) be concerned about affording it.

As the first article points out, however, there are some drawbacks to going the MOOC route.  First and foremost, there is a huge difference between a small seminar class with lots of interaction between professor and student – a hallmark of the liberal arts education experience – and taking an online class with thousands of others.  Second, the experience of actually being on campus, with roommates/dormmates from different backgrounds learning to live together.  It’s not just about the classes, it’s about the lectures (I heard Eugene Ionescu and Abbie Hoffman my first year in college), concerts, plays and other social events – all of which can’t occur in an online environment.  Staying up late with friends talking about life, philosophy, boyfriends, etc. with people who didn’t come from the same place and environment you did is all part of the experience.

Now, that may not be worth the nearly $30,000/year average for tuition at the private schools (yes, many are much higher than that… let’s move on).  There are great state schools where you can get that social side, as well as attending classes that equal those at more expensive private schools; larger schools do lose some of that intimate educational experience, but that may not be a bad thing for some students.

Having attended a private boarding school and liberal arts college, I know what that experience looks like.  I’m currently studying for a certificate in e-learning and online teaching, taught (appropriately enough) online and have taken other online classes, so I know what that experience looks like, too.  One of the differences is the lack of time with my classmates outside class; we’re focusing on one topic, one course, and I don’t get to hear that someone is also taking an incredible class by an amazing professor and I should try to get into that class next semester/year – something that led me to some great educational experiences earlier.  Having said that, there were teachers and classes I didn’t take, either because of a conflict in scheduling or idiocy on my part and if those teachers/classes were available online now, I’d jump at the chance.

What my friend and I thought made a good compromise (and money maker for the schools!) was to encourage professors to teach one section of their best/most popular/most iconic class online (with assistance on the technology and assessment aspects).  These classes would not be taken for college credit but a certificate of completion would be provided.  The point being that there is real value to the in class/in person experience that cannot be replicated in a MOOC, but that there is also value to having the best professors and the best classes available to students (college age or older) who are interested in finally taking that art history (or philosophy, or British Literature, or Ethics of Science) class.

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