New & Noteworthy – Items of Interest in Higher Education
New & Noteworthy in Higher, Liberal & Classical Education
Fall 2012
Quotable: (Adapted from the late Phyllis Diller): “Studying hard won’t kill you; but I’d rather be on the safe side.”
Endnote:  We need to ask hard questions about student learning in MOOC courses. A first step:  "Getting up to Speed on Student Learning: A Web Bibliography" is now available as a download at  It is based on a talk I recently gave at Princeton University.
Also recently added to “Jobs vs. Knowledge.” It’s in the “Provocations” section of the site.

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Are MOOCs the Answer?

(Mass Open Online Courses)
Perhaps the most rapidly developing and far reaching change in the higher education landscape is the emergence of online courses, open (so far) to all, without (so far) tuition charges or credit. They are usually taught by a world-renowned expert in a field to tens of thousands of students of all ages and nationalities. The courses may have the potential to transform higher education, but many questions need to be asked about this fast moving process. Here are some of them and some news and observations about the phenomenon.
                                                          Bob Connor
 Background -- Bowen’s Law:  Years ago Bill Bowen formulated what has come to be known as “Bowen’s Law:  institutional costs per student inexorably rise faster than costs in general over the long term.  Bowen has now taken a new look at the issue in Tanner lectures given at Stanford University “The ‘Cost Disease’ in Higher Education: Is Technology the Answer?”

Bowen’s bottom line (to oversimplify) inexorable growth is deeply embedded in the system and will continue until technology is used more broadly and effectively. The audio of Bowen’s lectures is available at

Here are  the most recent cost figures:
Sector Total Charges 2012-13 Total Charges 2011-12 $ Change % Change
$10,550 $10,291 $259 2.5%
$17,860 $17,136 $724 4.2%
(out of state)
$30,911 $29,703 $1,208 4.1%
Private Nonprofit
$39,518 $37,971 $1,547 4.0%

The rate of increase has diminished somewhat, but college costs are an increasing portion of family income. 
Read more at Inside Higher Ed:  

Student debt:  The rising costs are met, as we all know, by rising student debt but I was surprised to find that such debt is now near to one trillion dollars. See figure 3 in Bowen’s first Tanner lecture (above). Higher ed economists like to discuss what is the “right level” of  such debt, but I wonder what’s the criterion for deciding if the debt burden is too much for an individual student. It seems to me the criterion has to be whether debt pushes a student into career choices he or she would not otherwise make. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of this, but I have not seen a systematic study.
Is higher education a Beethoven quartet? Bowen quotes Robert Frank “While productivity gains have made it possible to assemble cars with only a tiny fraction of the labor that was once required, it still takes four musicians nine minutes to perform Beethoven’s String Quartet in C minor, just as it did in the 19th century.”  MOOCs raise the question of how good an analogy this is to higher education.   
Ten years from now: Vivek Wadhwa shows his faith in the power of technology, asserting that  that online courses will revolutionize higher education and cut the cost to near zero for most students over the next decade.  But we need to ask - Will such education be worth any more than students pay?  Check out his views at
Expansion of the principal MOOC providers: The two most prestigious providers of MOOCs are EdX and Coursera. The number of participating institutions is growing rapidly. EdX has added the University of Texas system:  Coursera reports seventeen new members from around the world. What will this mean for their principal commercial competitor, Udacity (
Credit for MOOC courses:  A respected senior administrator at a leading  institution assured me “we will never charge or give credit for these courses.”  But soon thereafter  Coursera announced it had an agreement with Antioch University to give credit for its courses: Colorado State’s Globe campus is also ready to give credit for several MOOC courses: and several European universities are also said to be doing so.
Stop Press:  The New York Times (November 14, 2012) has now reported that the American Council on Education, “the leading umbrella group for higher education,” has set up a pilot program to explore granting college credit for MOOCs. There is no assurance at this point that such credit will be given, but if ACE can help students get college credit for courses at McDonald’s Hamburger University (, the likely outcome of this pilot study seems clear.
Hybridization: No longer restricted to plants and automobiles, hybridization is now moving into higher education, as MOOCs are combined with face-to-face instruction and advising. This may be an opportunity to inject liberal education goals into the content-driven pattern of MOOC instruction and a chance for the small private college to maximize its historic advantages in a new setting.
Accreditation: Who’s watching the store once credit is given for MOOC courses? What constitutes quality? Will successful hybridization be required for accreditation? None of the existing accrediting organizations seems eager to move onto this turf. Who will step into the vacuum?
Governance: Do institutions have the decision making structures they need to think wisely about this development? What are the proper roles for faculty, senior administrators and governing boards? If we are not clear about that you can bet that the potential revenue stream from MOOCs will shape decision making.
Faculty worries and Student initiative: Faculty members are understandably worried about losing their jobs, or ‘lines’ in their department or finding their job definitions changing. But what about students?  Kenny Morrell of Rhodes College writes, “These courses will give rise to expectations on the part of students for how professors approach the material and what the students' responsibilities are to the larger learning community. Furthermore, as your friend notes, this will influence what happens in small colleges as much as it is altering how large research institutions think about courses they offer.” Some students are fast off the mark. Chuck Pazdernik writes  about how one student took up the ball (Peter Struck’s MOOC on Greek and Roman Mythology) and ran with it. Here's what's so exciting about the conversation: this student is working through a local community service organization, the Gerald R. Ford Job Corps Center in Grand Rapids, with a group of their clients, mainly people working on their GEDs. They meet regularly as a group to view Struck's Coursera lectures and then to discuss the material and work through the assignments. In other words, she's come up with potentially a very intriguing formula for leveraging her own university instruction in Classics and the opportunities presented by these MOOC experiments to fashion a novel kind of service learning.
What could such outreach mean for the Classics? I asked Adam Blistein of the American Philological Association what percentage of North American students have an opportunity to study ancient Greece and Rome under the guidance of a trained professor. It’s a hard question to answer but here’s a first step: I have a list of 430 departments in the USA and Canada where I believe that classics in some form is taught. Of these, just under half are free-standing classics departments. The others are departments of history, philosophy, ancient and modern languages, etc. So, at approximately one institution in ten, students have this opportunity. That’s a disgraceful situation, I believe. Could MOOCs help improve it? 

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