The ExCollege and the Future of Higher Education

Today we began our 50th anniversary celebration weekend with a conference on the future of higher education. One of the conference highlights will be reflecting on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and how their presence will impact the traditional university. During the Fall 2013 semester, the ExCollege created a Quidnunc that allowed students to take MOOCs and discuss the experience with a group of peers. Ken Garden, ExCollege Board Chair and faculty member in the Religion Department, participated in the Quidnunc and shared his thoughts with us on MOOCs.

Written by Ken Garden, Religion Department and ExCollege Board Chair

2013-2014 has been a particularly eventful year at the ExCollege. In addition to our usual offerings of innovative and timely classes taught by practitioners, academic instructors, and students, we are celebrating a half century of the ExCollege at Tufts. The event will be marked by two exhibits on the ExCollege’s history, a gala held on April 12th, and a conference on the future of higher education on April 11th. The longevity of the ExCollege and the outpouring of support for its 50th anniversary speak to the vital role it plays in the life of the Tufts community.

Higher education is in the midst of one of its biggest experiments in years in the form of the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. The New York Times dubbed 2012 the “Year of the MOOC.” That year, Google’s Sebastian Thrun started a new company, Udacity, to offer free online university courses to as many students as wanted to enroll in them. He was so confident of the promise of MOOCs that he predicted that within 50 years there would remain only a small handful of higher education providers, the rest of the world’s universities having been swept away by this new “disruptive technology.” Stanford sponsored a new MOOC consortium, Coursera, and Harvard and MIT followed suit, launching EdX later that year.

It seemed fitting that the ExCollege should join the conversation on the MOOC. A group of Tufts students and I, including our own Board member Kumar Ramanathan (A’15), set out to look into this experiment ourselves, each of us enrolling in a MOOC. Between us, we enrolled in courses on topics ranging from contraception, to the hero in ancient Greek literature, to irony in the writing of Søren Kierkegaard, to the history of architecture, to the letters of Paul.

Our experiences in many cases echoed what we had read about the MOOC experience. Having paid nothing for the course and with no non-virtual connection to the instructor or other students, several of us stopped taking courses that didn’t interest us and enrolled in other ones. Online multiple choice quizzes, discussion boards, and peer-graded essays were a pale substitute for classroom interaction and instructor-graded assignments. While we all saw a real threat to companies that sell university courses on CD or DVD, we saw no mortal threat to the traditional brick and mortar university. Sebastian Thrun came to a similar conclusion at the end of 2013, declaring that his own Udacity had a “lousy product.”

Still, we also saw ongoing experimentation with the MOOC and all of us felt we learned from the courses we took. It will be interesting to see what it evolves into and what kind of role online courses, massive or otherwise, come to play in higher education.

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TuftsNow also reflected on the ExCollege’s exploration into the world of MOOCs with an article written by Gail Bambrick.

Preparing for our 50th Anniversary

2014 marks the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Experimental College at Tufts. In preparation for a series of events this coming spring, we’re very busy sorting through old course books, posters, newspaper articles, instructor bios, and so much more in order to put together a comprehensive look at the past five decades. Diving into such a rich and complex history produces some wonderful ExCollege artifacts that need to be shared! As we come across these interesting ExCollege facts, figures, and photographs, we’ll be sharing them on our blog.

Here is an early sampling of photographs discovered going through old reports created by the ExCollege.