When the history of American higher education in the 21st century is written, technology and its impact on traditional models of post-secondary teaching and learning will merit more than a passing mention.
Every institution of every stripe – from public universities and two-year colleges to private liberal arts colleges – must answer to what degree they adapt new technologies to the campus and classroom. Among the stakes, all high, are enrollment, institutional culture and identity, revenue, relevancy, and ultimately survival.
Hendrix is no exception. For example, we have already witnessed the rise of mobile computing. That development alone represents a new reality – how students and faculty receive and share information. We responded swiftly by redesigning our website to be responsive to smartphones, tablets, and mobile computers because that’s how prospective students and parents will find us. It’s where they are. So we have to be there too.
Technologically speaking, we have to be everywhere. In the labs and classrooms, the student center and residence halls, in cyberspace and in the cloud.
Another example is social media. We know that if we don’t participate in the conversation that is already happening about Hendrix on social media, we are abdicating the framing of attitudes and opinions to others who may or may not have the College’s best interests at heart. So we established guidelines and institutional resources for engaging dialog online in a way that best represented Hendrix. We also organized a social media committee, comprising a representative cross-section of our campus constituencies, to address, coordinate, and direct our messaging on social media. The committee is there as a sounding board for guidance, established institution practice, and shared governance.
Year of the MOOC
One of the most popular topics around the higher education water cooler is the advent of MOOCs. That stands for Massive Open Online Courses.
What began as a $60 million venture between Harvard, MIT, and private businesses is now thought of as one of the most potentially disruptive trends in American higher education.
Proponents say offering online courses from name-brand institutions increases access to higher education. In a post-recession world where college affordability is a national political issue, that’s tough talk to ignore.
But who are they for? Professionals looking to gain an edge in a current job with new tech skills or unemployed professionals looking for more employable skills are a good fit. An overachieving high school student not sufficiently challenged in secondary education is another likely candidate.
There is fear in higher education that MOOCs will take the traditional college student away from traditional colleges. But those students aren’t taking MOOCs. Traditional students want to be on campus and be around faculty and other students. Traditional students come to a liberal arts college because they want a low student-to-faculty ratio. They want community, and they want to be involved. They want to be better prepared to go on to graduate or professional school and to the workplace.
M is for massive
To market an intimate first-year student course (and just about any course in the whole catalog) to 20,000 students would fundamentally change the identity of Hendrix. No exclusive offering of online courses would ever succeed in this environment. Art and Science Group research supports this.
MOOCS don’t save colleges and universities money. Individual MOOC courses can cost $50,000 or higher to produce, host, distribute, grade, and proctor, whereas adjunct faculty are paid on average $2,500 per course. And while MOOCs cost virtually nothing to students, the real return on investment is unknown compared to traditional degrees. To know the true ROI from MOOCs, versus other methods of higher learning, MOOCs must be priced at sustainable levels, set by the market. Then, we can see whether or not they survive in competition with other traditional institutions.
Completion rates for MOOCs are abysmal. The vast majority of MOOCs aren’t for credit.
And, at this moment, there is no universally recognized accreditation for any MOOC degree.
Most importantly, despite the media attention they’ve received for “disrupting” higher education, MOOCs don’t employ technology in an innovative way. It’s a medieval mode writ large. There’s essentially zero interactivity. MOOCs represent learning in its most passive and, like an exercise video, least effective mode. Abysmal retention rates in the single digits bear this out.
Hendrix students want an interactive, robust education environment that includes knowing faculty and classmates. They want to experience really good classroom teaching. Technology is just a tool, a means of delivery.
There are now strong signs from the academy that the early enthusiasm for MOOCS is stalling. Among the recent MOOC developments in the news:
- Last March In California, legislation was introduced to create a partnership between traditional public colleges and online-education startups. But now that the universities have promised to expand their own online courses, the senator sees no immediate need to let outside providers through the door. The legislation has been shelved for at least a year.
- San Jose State is suspending its MOOC experiment, after half their students failed the final exam. You can read about this here, here, and here. American University also called a moratorium on MOOCs.
- Georgia Institute of Technology will soon begin offering an online master’s degree in computer science at an unusually low cost of $7,000. However, Benjamin Flowers, chair of the university’s graduate curriculum committee, says he and his colleagues have “at no point been given, to review, any written proposal for any new graduate degree program.”
- At Duke, the university’s Arts & Sciences Council, governing arm of the undergraduate faculty, voted down a proposal to join a consortium of top colleges offering for-credit online courses through 2U, a company that specializes in real-time, small-format online education.
- After months of wooing and under close scrutiny, edX was rejected by Amherst College amid faculty concerns about the online course provider’s business plans and impact on student learning.
A better fit
While MOOCs are not the best fit at Hendrix, there are appropriate and increasingly more essential ways to integrate new technology in the classroom. For example, Hendrix has been an early and active partner in the Associated Colleges of the South’s New Paradigm Initiative. The program leverages high-definition video teleconferencing technology to share faculty expertise at ACS member schools.
This blended learning model offers students the same low student-to-faculty ratio they came to Hendrix for in the first place. It also makes available something they wouldn’t have access to otherwise, such as a course not offered at Hendrix. This adds breadth and depth to the academic program and represents tremendous operational savings to the College.
Hendrix has already witnessed several successful video teleconferencing classroom experiments with schools such as Rollins College, Furman University, and institutions in China. Politics professor Dr. Jay Barth used the technology to teach a class and lead a campus forum from the Democratic National Convention, where he was a delegate.
Part of our vision for technology at Hendrix is to make interactions like these more accessible, more comfortable, and more seamless to students and faculty. While we’ve expanded our video teleconferencing technology beyond the Student Life and Technology Center into a classroom and a lecture hall in Mills, we also need to invest in bringing that technology to other parts of campus, including both science buildings and Fausett Hall, so each area (e.g. sciences, social sciences, and humanities) has its own go-to place.
The next new paradigm
We want to offer a broad range of technology in the classroom. But we have to let pedagogy drive our technology decisions. We have to acquire and implement technology that augments our teaching, not change how or what we teach.
Our faculty knows that the landscape of higher learning is changing, and they know it’s in our students’ best interest to tie technology into student projects and learning. When the Office of Technology Services surveyed faculty in spring 2013 about their attitudes toward technology, 95.3 percent agreed that “instructional technologies are necessary to meeting some of my course goals.” In our faculty handbook, “participation in workshops or seminars devoted to the enhancement of pedagogy” is among the examples of professional development activities we expect of faculty. We recently made the connection between teaching and technology more explicit in the faculty handbook to include the phrase, “enhancement of capabilities in employing technology to support student, professional or community development.”
Many faculty members have already attended recent workshops and conferences on tech topics such as digital humanities and digital liberal arts. We must continue to support their willingness to integrate technology into their classes with additional resources and training.
A recent example of teaching driving our technology acquisition is 3D printing. In spring 2013, Hendrix bought its first 3D printer (with external grant support) to use in a design class. But we have to think of ways to maximize the value of these acquisitions. That means investing in resources and training to create “hacker spaces” or “maker spaces” for students and faculty to experiment creatively and deliberately with technology such as 3D printers and the Raspberry Pi learning computer.
The future’s so bright (but not so clear)
Three years ago, there was no iPad. Six years ago, no iPhone. What will the next three to six years bring? We can’t always anticipate precisely where technology’s going, but we must have a strong foundation of technology to support whatever comes down the road. For Hendrix, that means constantly reevaluating our network infrastructure.
We know that students are bringing more and more devices to campus. They have a voracious appetite for more and more bandwidth, so we’ve recently quintupled our carrying capacity on our Internet circuit. We also have to support Bonjour and Airplay, some of the more consumer-oriented device protocols, to better accommodate things like iPads in the classroom for presentation devices. And we’re offering more teleconferencing classes on campus, which means more and more video. So we have to have the infrastructure in place to supply those services.
Where do we go?
While MOOCs have not yet lived up to their early promise as the academy’s most disruptive force, we have to continue to review their development and other changes and trends in higher education and beyond.
In our vision for technology, we must:
- Continue to support our faculty’s professional development with technology that is appropriate for their discipline and their students at Hendrix.
- Invest in the campus technology infrastructure. We can’t anticipate every new technological development, but we can continue to upgrade the backbone of our system so that faculty and students have the support they need to teach and learn.
- Always allow pedagogy to drive our decisions about technology; evaluate classroom technology with an eye toward concrete learning outcomes; and make classroom technology decisions that strengthen our mission and values.
Despite the doomsayers, this century won’t see the disappearance of the college classroom. Students will continue to demand physical spaces where they can interact with other students and with faculty and can apply new skills. What happens in the classroom and on campus will change dramatically. New formats that integrate new technologies and pedagogical styles will become pervasive. We will remain relevant for our students only if we stay flexible and continue adapting to change, preparing Hendrix graduates to compete successfully in an ever-evolving global market.
From Bytes and Bricks: A Briefing on Technology at Hendrix, written by Robert O’Connor, Director of College Communications, Hendrix College. Dr. Robert Enztminger (EVP & Provost, Hendrix College), David J. Hinson (EVP & CIO, Hendrix College), and Tim Lepczyk (Fellow in Digital Humanities and Pedagogy, Hendrix College) also contributed to this article.