Verbum Ultimum: An Ill-Advised Initiative

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 1/23/14 8:29pm

Yesterday, the College announced its decision to join edX, a nonprofit online platform that was founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012. EdX offers free massive online open courses, or MOOCs, to anyone with a computer and the desire to learn. We understand the potential benefits of these online courses — particularly in expanding access to educational opportunities — but we are skeptical of Dartmouth’s decision to offer MOOCs.

Joining edX may have made sense a year ago, when many administrators and educators heralded MOOCs as the start of a revolution in higher education that would upend the traditional classroom model. Now, experts are questioning online courses’ viability. A University of Pennsylvania study published in December found that only 4 percent of Coursera users completed courses. Similarly, a study published this month by Harvard-MIT researchers determined that about 5 percent of HarvardX and MITx registered users earned certificates of completion. Though MOOCs were supposed to expand higher education’s accessibility, those who could most benefit from MOOCs are underrepresented among users.

Despite the doomsday predictions, brick-and-mortar classrooms haven’t disappeared — and the ones located in Dartmouth Hall are some of the best the nation has to offer. The College has consistently been ranked first for undergraduate teaching by U.S. News and World Report, and faculty accessibility has always been an institutional priority. From stopping by for office hours to chatting before class, the experience students receive in the classroom and the personal interactions they have with professors cannot be replicated through a computer screen.

But there are ways the College can enhance the classroom experience with technology. Instead of overextending its faculty to serve a fickle outside population, the College should focus on revamping current classroom structures to incorporate digital learning. For example, professors could pre-record and post lectures online to enable more in-class discussion. Expanding the use of programs like LectureTools, which lets users take notes alongside PowerPoint slides in real time, would be a simple way to serve the student body. Even assignments involving blogs or Blackboard forums can integrate digital media into more traditional classroom experiences.

Learning is an active process enhanced by interacting with professors and peers. While digital tools may improve the learning experience, online courses cannot compare to being in Dartmouth’s classrooms. Though spreading knowledge and giving those outside of Hanover access to Dartmouth faculty is a noble goal, the decision to offer online courses seems odd and poorly timed. Introducing MOOCs does little to emphasize Dartmouth’s strengths as an institution. In fact, it seems to be little more than a publicity stunt.

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