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MOOCs: A Wisely Conservative College

Udacity, Coursera, EdX and the College? Right now Dartmouth has let the MOOC fad pass it by. Have we done so out of laziness, or shortsightedness, or due to an innate skeptical conservatism? I can’t answer that question, but as the initial enthusiasm wears off and the nation’s educators realize that on-line education is far from ready for prime time, we can conclude that it is not such a bad thing that the administration did not chase after the flavor of the decade. The NYT reports on the reality of MOOC courses as it differs from the breathless headlines of the past few years:

A study of a million users of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, released this month by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found that, on average, only about half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed the courses.

Much of the hope — and hype — surrounding MOOCs has focused on the promise of courses for students in poor countries with little access to higher education. But a separate survey from the University of Pennsylvania released last month found that about 80 percent of those taking the university’s MOOCs had already earned a degree of some kind.

And perhaps the most publicized MOOC experiment, at San Jose State University, has turned into a flop. It was a partnership announced with great fanfare at a January news conference featuring Gov. Jerry Brown of California, a strong backer of online education. San Jose State and Udacity, a Silicon Valley company co-founded by a Stanford artificial-intelligence professor, Sebastian Thrun, would work together to offer three low-cost online introductory courses for college credit.

Mr. Thrun, who had been unhappy with the low completion rates in free MOOCs, hoped to increase them by hiring online mentors to help students stick with the classes. And the university, in the heart of Silicon Valley, hoped to show its leadership in online learning, and to reach more students.

But the pilot classes, of about 100 people each, failed. Despite access to the Udacity mentors, the online students last spring — including many from a charter high school in Oakland — did worse than those who took the classes on campus. In the algebra class, fewer than a quarter of the students — and only 12 percent of the high school students — earned a passing grade.

I’d like to think that MOOCs and the College are incompatible because we realize that a close-knit residential community of dedicated scholars has benefits that no on-line exercise can replicate. But is the faculty truly devoted to teaching? And does the administration do all that it can do so that professors make classroom time as valuable as possible for students? And do undergraduates even do the reading for their classes?

As this point in time, Phil and the faculty need to give some thought to just what are the factors that make the College a special place to be a student. Then that deliberate effort should spawn a set of policies and strategies to make Dartmouth better. I’d hazard that more video education will not be among them.

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