Editor’s note: this article was originally published in Forbes on November 7th.
Last week, Antioch University announced its intention to allow students to take credit-bearing classes based on some of the courses offered on Coursera. Until now, online courses have been used primarily in one of two ways: as MOOCs (non-credit-bearing classes open to anyone), and within the academic institutions producing these classes, to support a “flipped classroom” model for their own registered students.
The Antioch model reflects a third paradigm, in which one institution uses courses produced by another as the basis for a credit-bearing class. In this model, the online content is generally “ wrapped” with some face-to-face class time by a local instructor, who can facilitate discussion, answer questions, ensure that students are making progress, and possibly augment the course with additional content and/or assessments. This blended learning format is not an entirely new model; Professor Doug Fisher from Vanderbilt University has previously used two Stanford Computer Science MOOCs (two of the very first in this new generation of MOOCs) to flip his classroom at Vanderbilt with great success, which he chronicles in an article on ProfHacker.
What is the possible evolution of this new model? There are opportunities across the board. First, consider some of the advanced courses offered by universities online. Most small institutions do not have the staff or the expertise to offer all of these classes; indeed, no institution (even large ones) can offer the same breadth of curriculum that one can derive from multiple institutions contributing their best courses. By sharing these outstanding educational resources, institutions can provide a much richer and broader curriculum to their students, which may better support their specific interests or open up new career opportunities. Local instructors can still be used to help students traverse the material, but considerably less manpower and expertise are required to facilitate a class than to prepare the curriculum from scratch.
In a very different opportunity, there are colleges — including many community colleges — that are at capacity in certain core classes due to budgetary constraints. In fact, according to a recent College Board report, state and local funding for public higher education per student fell by 21 percent from 2000 to 2010, and continues to decline. A recent Los Angeles Times article described how last fall, nearly 70,000 California community college students had to attend two or more different schools to take their required classes. A survey by the Chancellor’s office of the California Community College System in August 2012 revealed that course sections have been reduced by 24%, and more than 472,000 of the system’s 2.4 million students were put on waiting lists for fall classes.
Students at these institutions often have to wait 2-3 years to fulfill their degree requirements. This delays their graduation, increases their tuition costs (as they take less critical classes while waiting), and may even result in the student dropping out altogether. By providing classes in an online format, the same number of instructors can offer these courses to a much larger number of students, increasing capacity and reducing costs.
One might question why students would pay tuition to take a course at an academic institution rather than taking it online for free. We’d hope that the academic institutions who use online courses within their instruction would pass some of the cost savings to their students, as Antioch has done. But free is still better, right?
There are two answers to that question. The first is that the ability to have these courses accrue credit toward a degree is very important to many students. While some have argued that degrees are a thing of the past, we do not agree with that. A college degree is a major milestone for most students, and often a critical one on the path to a better life. Allowing online courses to count toward that goal is a very important benefit. Second, although students can get a great educational experience by taking online courses alone, many can also benefit tremendously from the direct interaction with a local instructor who can help support them in achieving their learning goals.
This blended learning format offers both students and instructors more advantages than purely online or face-to-face teaching. With an online course, students get the benefit of having constant interaction with the material, as well as learning at their own pace; in-class time is then freed up to give students more opportunities for interaction with their instructor. Online courses also help educators improve the quality of their instruction, allowing them to devote more time to the task that they are uniquely qualified for: understanding and supporting the needs of their students.
While some critics might say this model turns instructors into glorified Teaching Assistants, the reality is that it actually allows instructors to move away from orating, and go back to teaching, the way it was meant to be.
Higher education institutions are integral to our society; they continue to be focal point for serendipitous interactions that lead to innovative new ideas. As these schools struggle with reduced budget and increasing enrollments, it is more important than ever that they provide an excellent on-campus experience. Colleges can use the technology of online courses to offer students diverse curricula, increased interactions with educators, and more opportunities to advance their studies and eventually, their career. Online courses in a blended learning format are not a panacea for all of the problems that higher institutions are facing, but they do offer a promising approach that we believe provide an immediate and positive impact for students and educators alike.
-Daphne Koller, Co-founder and Co-CEO