Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on HuffPost Live. The topic was massive open online courses (MOOCs), prompted specifically by Amherst College’s most recent decision to decline entering into a partnership with edX. President of Amherst, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, was on the panel, as well as Armando Fox, Academic Director for Online Education at UC Berkeley, and Molly Keener, a librarian from Wake Forest University.

First, I must say that I admire Pres. Martin’s tactful participation on the panel. She was quite defensive of her faculty members despite the fact that she herself was actually hoping to forge a partnership with edX. One of the major concerns that the Amherst faculty voiced was that the “massive” quality of these courses was in direct conflict with their mission to educate in a “purposefully small residential community…through close colloquy.” Understandable. When the faculty came together to decide whether they would join edX, Professor of Biology and Neuroscience Stephen George put forth an alternative motion to postpone such a decision and instead consider independently delivering Amherst’s own courses online to promote the visibility of the college while simultaneously allowing the faculty to have more freedom in teaching their own way. Prof. George cited that there existed other technologies outside of edX that would facilitate moving forward with online education. Ultimately, the faculty voted to adopt the “George” motion as opposed to moving forward with a partnership with edX.

The voting down of this venture into experimenting with technology is not surprising in any way to someone like myself who used to participate in these kinds of faculty meetings as an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college. Many professors (and I felt exactly the same way when I was entrenched in academia) are deeply territorial of their connection with students and how they believe students best learn and grow from the knowledge we impart to them.

For many, our motivation to get a doctoral degree was often shaped by some special, personal relationship with a mentor or some epiphanic “aha” moment in learning, in which we felt driven to change the world one mind at a time if that’s what it took. And so it’s no wonder that the intrusion of technologists and entrepreneurs into this sacred space feels invasive and inspires a sense of fear that somehow our roles are being diminished by technology. Ever since the emergence of MOOCs a little over a year ago, such characterizations of the threat of technology are published daily in journals, blogs, and newspapers nationwide.

As someone who has now spent the last year delving deeply into the vast majority of existing and emerging online technologies built for higher education, I find it immensely challenging as an objective bystander to observe all of these amazing and different innovations being built today because so many are trying to solve the same problems—just slightly differently. And there are millions of dollars being invested into these technologies that are striving to do the same thing.

Therefore, when I hear that Amherst is foregoing using technology that is already developed in order to embark on a similar endeavor of building out its own courses, I bristle at the duplicative process. In a recent Wired article, Jeff Borden, Vice President of Instruction and Academic Strategy and Lead of the Center for Online Learning at Pearson urges those who are not satisfied with the MOOCs out there today to build their “own (2nd GEN!) MOOC with purpose, solid learning design, and good pedagogical / andragogical models.” Borden insists, “Include neuroscience in the conversation as well as what we have learned from Education Psychology. And don’t forget about 2 decades of learning about how to best deliver eLearning.” Easier said than done.

More importantly, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. It makes little sense to me for a university to start from scratch, invest millions more into this crowded market space, building their own proprietary platforms partly in an effort to avoid a direct partnership with a for-profit company. Couldn’t we instead take advantage of what’s already been built and spend more time understanding how these existing innovations, as well as open content, can help us become better teachers and more attuned to our students’ learning outcomes? Instead, the State University of New York (SUNY) announced a similar project to build its own MOOC, and most recently, American University put a moratorium on entering any partnerships with MOOCs, so that it could consider building its own platform as well.

Students don’t need yet another platform or an LMS that looks like Blackboard or Moodle. We’ve already witnessed the University of California System lose millions of dollars from its College of Online Education pilot program. Despite pouring at least $50,000 into the creation of each course, the professors and learning design teams have been unable to use technology to scale their teaching and reach a student population necessary to pay off the loan for the creation of this program.

There is a huge mental shift required on the part of faculty members to turn their traditional classroom courses into online ones; it is also a deeply humbling process. I remember vividly when I was asked to create an online course for an edtech company; my CEO told me how to organize my class into modularized chunks of learning. He completely rearranged what I saw as my thoughtfully detailed syllabus by taking away and adding assessments and readings where I had never intended them to be. My first reaction was sheer incredulity. I couldn’t believe that someone who had never taught in a university setting was telling me how to teach my own area of specialization. I was offended by his suggestions and instinctually resisted every unsolicited recommendation he made.

In a conversation I had last week with a MOOC instructional designer, I saw this same dynamic play out, as she recounted her experience of working directly with a university professor to build an online course. The professor would say things like, “I know how students learn best. I’ve been teaching this course for 15 years, and this is how we have to do it!” I chuckled and acknowledged that that’s probably what I sounded like to my CEO when he tried to convert my way of teaching into a completely different format.

Here’s the rub: you cannot simply transport what you do in the classroom online. There is simply no way to replicate a classroom experience online. Nevertheless, there are ways in which online learning can cater to students’ needs sometimes even better than a single teacher can. I know that in my seminars (ranging from 8 to 25 students max), I found it deeply frustrating—even in my smallest discussion groups—to not know what the quiet student was thinking as he sat there doodling in his notebook while my more outgoing students dominated the discussion. You can cold-call all you want, but the notion that classrooms facilitate the unique rubbing of great minds together is the most optimistic view of what happens in a classroom.

As an instructor, it’s quite difficult to know how to pitch a lecture or frame a discussion because you don’t really have a good sense of the various skillsets and sorts of information students already have access to. This is where adaptive learning technologies and competency-based education are going to be such powerful tools for the professors willing to use them. We will be able to extricate ourselves from a group-paced model of learning and instead ensure that each, individual student masters the concepts at his or her own pace. Moreover, with flipped classroom techniques, a lot of that guesswork will go away, and teachers will be able to come into class with a much more precise understanding of concepts that students might be struggling with and shape an entire day’s class time around elucidating that troublesome concept.

There are vast amounts of research on how students learn, and to be very candid, we as professors know very little about that research. When I talk with my colleagues from graduate school and those thriving in academia, we marvel at how little we were taught in terms of teaching. Most Ph.D. programs channel students into dissertation-production mode. We’re given a few scant courses on pedagogy before we serve as teaching assistants and instructors, but for the most part, we teach through a process of emulation. We try to be the professors whom we most admired in our undergraduate and graduate programs. We’re not taught to think critically about specific student-learning outcomes—about mapping our syllabi to learning objectives and how to create fair and unbiased assessments and assignments. Even while I was a professor, my teaching was, at most, evaluated twice a semester, but no one ever told me how exactly to build and organize a course to enhance my students’ learning. There was no accountability either: I never had to tell anyone once I finished a course what exactly my students had learned during the course of the semester. It was assumed that I had done my job.

Meanwhile, there are companies out there today that are doing phenomenal work and creating courses that make obvious to the students how each of their exercises, assignments, and assessments tie in to their ultimate learning objectives for the course. Each module and granular piece of information is tagged as part of a larger knowledge map or database for the entire course, so that students have a much more thorough sense of their trajectory and progress within a course. I could never do that in my day-to-day, in-person interactions with my students.

And yet, we feel innately that the lively interaction we have with students in a classroom must be better than an online course. The results, however, are not always so convincing. In fact, according to a meta-study by the U.S. Department of Education, on average, online learning conditions actually “produced better outcomes than face-to-face learning alone.” And yet, online educators—particularly for-profit educators—are held accountable in much more public ways to prove that their teaching works. As Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce puts it, “Whereas the legitimacy of a course at Harvard is Harvard, the legitimacy of one of these courses is, did you learn anything?”

If we want to get at the heart of understanding what our students are learning and coming away with, we need to experiment directly with existing and emerging technologies. The creation of online courses involves a whole new kind of pedagogy. To believe that professors, who have only known their own way of teaching, can suddenly create from scratch a valuable and new online experience is naïve. Certainly this does not mean that colleges must partner with MOOCs. At the Christensen Institute, we’re seeing even more radically innovative work coming from different groups that have nothing to do with MOOCs.

The important takeaway is that as much as we wish to resist the idea, edu-preneurs and education researchers have a lot to offer academics. As summarized in my colleague Michael Horn’s blog about the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting, the lines of communication between these different players must be opened up. We as professors tend to mistake our deep and rigorous understanding of a subject area as mastery of how best to facilitate the learning process for students, when in fact, our research often has little to do with how well we are able to help students understand even the most introductory of materials.

Such relinquishment of control, while hard perhaps on our egos, will not mean that our system of higher education will suddenly reel into a two-tier system with rock-star professors and a guild of second-class teachers who simply teach the celebrity professors’ materials. The recent and highly publicized letter from philosophy professors at San Jose State University exaggerates the threat of using Michael Sandel’s lectures when, quite simply, such lively content can serve as another kind of textbook and resource that professors can choose or choose not to incorporate into their syllabi.

Content need not be proprietary. Imparting subject matter can be commoditized or centralized in a way that is not going to obviate the role of professors. If anything, it will be up to university professors to see how they can make existing content come alive for their own students. Instructors will inevitably become even more crucial because they will need to create better scenarios for students to apply and combine their skills.

So while I now write as a researcher who believes firmly in integrating a technological enabler such as online learning to make education more affordable, accessible, and tied to better student-learning outcomes, I also deeply empathize with the viewpoint of the academics who feel that initial queasiness and resistance to the idea of letting technology intrude into their practice of teaching. I felt those same feelings of trepidation until I opened myself up to all of the different innovations burgeoning within the field of education technology.

Yes, there is profit involved, and yes, venture funds back these innovations, but there are also incredibly savvy and mission-driven innovators out there trying to make our higher education system work better, more efficiently and affordably for our students.

I urge faculty members to keep an open mind and be willing to experiment with what is out there today. Perhaps in the spirit of adaptation as we face this massive tide of technology, we can embrace the first two rules of improvisation and respond with both, Yes. And… instead of retreating instinctively to No.



  • Michelle R. Weise, PhD
    Michelle R. Weise, PhD