Sunday, 24 November 2013

State boarding schools 'at risk'

24 November 2013 Last updated at 00:30 GMT By Judith Burns Education reporter, BBC News  State boarding schools play a vital role in England's education system, a leading head will argue The long-term survival of state boarding schools is at risk because of lack of cash to maintain accommodation, according to a leading head.

State boarding schools in England are in "dire need" of capital investment, Roy Page, of the State Boarding School Association (SBSA), will argue.

Without investment, more schools may lose their boarding houses, Mr Page will tell the SBSA annual conference.

The government suggested schools could raise funds from charitable donations.

Thirty-eight state schools in England offer boarding, to a total of about 5,000 pupils.

In his speech Mr Page, chairman of the SBSA and head of the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, will list three state schools that have closed their boarding houses in recent years.

Vital fabric

More may follow unless the government stumps up the capital for boarding accommodation, he will say.

Mr Page told BBC News that state boarding schools had received no funding to maintain their boarding houses under this government.

Continue reading the main story
Some of our longest-established schools, run by experienced heads, are desperately anxious about the survival of their boarding houses”

End Quote Roy Page State Boarding School Association He said his school, an academy, can apply to the Academies Capital Maintenance Fund, for its academic buildings but this does not cover boarding accommodation.

A recent government offer of grants to train boarding staff is welcome, he will tell the conference, but lack of money for "the literal, physical, bricks and mortar, the bedrooms and the dining rooms of boarding schools" may mean "we end up with wonderfully trained staff in buildings collapsing around them".

For two years the SBSA has been seeking "clarity and security from the government concerning capital investment in the fabric of state boarding schools", he will say.

"Some of our longest-established schools, run by experienced heads, are desperately anxious about the survival of their boarding houses."

He will argue that state boarding schools that care for vulnerable pupils, support ordinary families and prioritise armed forces' children are "a vital part" of the educational system.

He will add that lack of funding for boarding accommodation may mean "a boarding house may look more useful if converted into a sixth-form centre".

Sharing standards

"It's not because the schools are badly managed, it's because they have no capital to maintain their buildings or improve their facilities."

Mr Page told BBC News that Ofsted sets minimum standards for boarding accommodation, which include numbers of pupils sharing a room and the numbers of showers and other facilities.

He said funding per pupil in state boarding schools is around half the average annual fee charged by private boarding schools, which can top £32,000.

"State boarding schools are not allowed to make a profit. Neither are they allowed to borrow. To survive they need state support," he will say.

He is expected to question government plans to fund new state boarding schools when existing schools with expertise in boarding struggle to make ends meet.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: "There is nothing to stop any school from accepting philanthropic donations.

"We know that state boarding schools make a valuable contribution to the education system and can change the lives of vulnerable young people."

She added that the government in England was spending £18 billion on school buildings "in this Parliament".

The spokeswoman said: "By next summer we will have collected up-to-date and reliable condition information for the entire schools estate to enable us to target this funding where it is most needed - including state boarding schools."

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New trust to run Al-Madinah school

22 November 2013 Last updated at 16:37 GMT Al-Madinah School The school was described by Ofsted as "dysfunctional" and rated as inadequate A new education trust is to be brought in to run the troubled Al-Madinah free school in Derby, Education Minister Lord Nash has confirmed.

It follows a highly critical Ofsted report and a letter from the minister outlining 17 areas of improvement to be addressed by the school.

The school was described as "dysfunctional" and rated inadequate.

The current trustees have agreed to resign along with the chair of governors, Shazia Parveen.

The Greenwood Dale Foundation Trust, which runs several academy schools across the East Midlands, has been asked to work with the school.

'Swift resolution'

In a letter to the outgoing chair of governors Lord Nash said: "I am not satisfied that you have demonstrated a strong basis for the transformation required at the school.

"I cannot tolerate any child experiencing a poor quality of education in any state funded school and am therefore determined to ensure there is a swift resolution.

"I have decided that the needs of the pupils at Al-Madinah school would be best served by bringing in a more experienced trust with the skills and capability required to deliver the improvements needed.

"The Greenwood Dale Foundation Trust has a track record of providing high quality education to children from a Muslim background and I have no doubt they will apply this expertise at Al-Madinah."

The new trust's Chief Executive Barry Day said: "If we sense that all we are going to get is resistance to everything that we try and do there - we will have to sit back and think about whether this is a project is actually winnable - but I don't believe that is going to happen.

"My job is to go in and talk to people and convince them that ... we are have their best interests at heart. We will give it our best shot."

Ms Parveen issued a statement in response to Lord Nash's letter, in which she said: "The trust will ensure that the transition of Al-Madinah is smooth and the ethos of the faith designated school remains secure.

"We acknowledge the positive input to allow or children to progress and have an academic success and a positive future."

Continue reading the main story Ofsted report September 2012: Al-Madinah school opensAugust 2013: The Education Funding Agency confirms it is investigating alleged financial irregularities at the schoolSeptember: The school faces allegations it is imposing strict Islamic practicesOctober 7: The school reopens almost a week after it was closed during an Ofsted inspection over "health and safety concerns"October 8: Education Minister Lord Nash lays out 17 concerns about the school and says it will close unless "unacceptable" teaching standards improveOct 14: The school amends its policy to make clear women do not have to wear head scarvesOctober 17: The school is described by Ofsted inspectors as "dysfunctional"Oct 25: Muslim community leaders in Derby call for the school governors to resignNov 22: Lord Nash announces a new education trust will be brought inEarlier, a statement on the school's website said the governors would not be stepping down and would work with the Department for Education (DfE) over the future of the school.

The message read: "Just to re-assure parents regarding the rumours circulating... about governors resigning.

"This is not the case and we would urge parents to talk to the PTA [parent-teacher association] and the governors if they are concerned.

"We are working with the DfE to ensure that our pupils future and the future of our school is secure."

On Friday, a DfE investigation into the school's finances was also published.

The report highlighted the school could not demonstrate that it was maintaining proper accounting records as required by the Companies Act.

It identified irregular payments of £19,188.85 which included duplicated payments to a supplier.

There were also concerns in the report that there were too few governors at the school which resulted in decisions being made by just two members of the board.

Lord Nash had written to the Al-Madinah Education Trust on 8 October "placing 17 requirements, which they must satisfy or risk their funding agreement being terminated".

The school's trustees were told to provide a plan by 1 November to show how fit they were to run the school and how it would improve.

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Postgraduate training cash set out

22 November 2013 Last updated at 02:06 GMT By Angela Harrison Education correspondent, BBC News Stem cell research Funding is spread across 24 universities More than 3,500 postgraduates will be trained in engineering and science under a £350m scheme announced by the government.

The money will go to 70 new "centres for doctoral training" being set up at 24 universities around the UK.

Universities Minister David Willetts says the centres demonstrate strong partnerships between universities, industry and business.

The government says priority was given to the UK's most important sectors.

These include aerospace, pharmaceuticals, medicine and "high-value manufacturing".

The idea is to bring together expertise from universities and industry to train engineers and scientists "to tackle today's evolving issues and future challenges", says the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which is allocating the money.

Mr Willetts said: "Scientists and engineers are vital to our economy and society. It is their talent and imagination, as well as their knowledge and skills, that inspire innovation and drive growth across a range of sectors, from manufacturing to financial services.

"I am particularly pleased to see strong partnerships between universities, industry and business among the new centres announced today. This type of collaboration is a key element of our industrial strategy and will continue to keep us at the forefront of the global science race."

Among the universities receiving funding are Imperial College London, University College London and Bristol University, which each have seven centres.

Oxford and Cambridge universities each have six.

The centres will be funded for four years.

One of the centres at Imperial will work to develop new technology for predicting environmental risk, such as that from extreme weather. Another will involve university researchers coming together with people from industry and charities to work on treatments for brain disorders.

The projects at Cambridge include one on nanotechnology and another on the carbon material graphene.

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Free school faces closure

22 November 2013 Last updated at 18:39 GMT By Angela Harrison Education correspondent, BBC News Discovery New School in Crawley The Discovery New School is in a Grade II listed building that was renovated before the opening One of the first schools to open under England's free school programme is facing closure if it does not come up with a convincing improvement plan in the next two weeks.

The Discovery New School in Crawley, West Sussex, was reinspected by Ofsted this month after being judged inadequate in June.

The Montessori primary school has been open for just over two years.

Free schools are state-funded but independent.

They can be set up by groups including parents, charities, faith groups and businesses, and more than 170 have opened so far.

Like academies, they have more independence than other schools, with greater freedom over the curriculum, teachers' pay and conditions, and are not linked with local authorities.

The Discovery New School was in the first wave of 24 free schools to open.

Schools Minister Lord Nash has written to the school's governors, saying the government will terminate the contract under which the school is funded if it does not provide an acceptable action plan to improve.

He wrote: "As Ofsted report that very little progress has been made since the school was placed in special measures I remain extremely concerned about the quality of education children are receiving."

The letter goes on to say that the school's actions "demonstrate some progress, but there remain key gaps".

It states: "Due to the ongoing concern regarding the financial management and governance at the academy, including the lack of a formally agreed budget forecast, we will consider the next steps."

The letter suggests places will be found for pupils at other schools in the area if the Discovery closes.

'Fundamental flaws'

The threat of closure comes as another free school - the Al Madinah in Derby - is also under fire.

The Department for Education replaced the trust (governing body) of the school on Friday. Inspectors have described the school as dysfunctional and rated it inadequate.

In a letter to the outgoing chair of governors, Lord Nash said: "I am not satisfied that you have demonstrated a strong basis for the transformation required at the school.

"I cannot tolerate any child experiencing a poor quality of education in any state-funded school and am therefore determined to ensure there is a swift resolution."

Labour's shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said: "As we can see from the evidence of the failings at the prime minister's flagship Al-Madinah and Discovery free schools, his changes are harming standards.

"He and his Education Secretary Michael Gove are refusing to take action to address the fundamental flaws in their schools policy that allows unqualified teachers in classrooms on a permanent basis; a lack of transparency; and a complete failure of oversight."

'Intense scrutiny'

But Natalie Evans, director of the New Schools Network, which supports groups that want to open free schools, said the majority of free schools had been rated good or outstanding by Ofsted and were providing a good education.

"Underperformance in any school is completely unacceptable given the costs to students and their families," she said.

"Despite the intense scrutiny they are under, the overwhelming majority of free schools are delivering on their promise to pupils and parents: providing excellent education whether through bilingual learning, extended days or specialist curricula."

She said swift action was being taken in the case of these two schools, while there were 350 other state-funded schools in special measures, a third of which had "languished" there for more than a year.

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Call to check campus speeches

22 November 2013 Last updated at 14:18 GMT By Angela Harrison Education correspondent, BBC News Student lecture Universities have to accommodate a wide range of political views More universities in the UK could consider checking in advance speeches to be made by some controversial visiting speakers, new guidance suggests.

The umbrella group Universities UK is publishing new guidance setting out possible checks on events.

It follows claims that extremists are using universities to radicalise young people.

The allegations have been denied by the sector.

Universities UK (UUK) says most speakers are uncontroversial but some will express "inflammatory views".


Universities need to balance their obligation to encourage free speech with their duty to ensure that the law is not broken, it says.

In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron told MPs that Britain needed to do more to "deradicalise our universities".

The new guidance is aimed at helping universities to "review their existing approach to managing external speakers", UUK says, adding that a number of suggestions would only apply "to events or speakers deemed to be higher-risk".

Continue reading the main story
The easy route would be to ban and boycott discussions on controversial subjects. But universities have a vital role to play in securing free speech and promoting debate”

End Quote Nicola Dandridge Universities UK It suggests that where there are concerns about a speaker saying something that might break the law or lead to public disorder, universities could ask for a copy or summary of a speech in advance and have university officials present to take any action necessary.

Other options might be to make an event ticket-only or open it up to the public, UUK says.

Some universities already check some speeches in advance, it says.

A particular issue highlighted by the report is that of requests from speakers or organisers of events for men and women to be segregated during events.

At a news conference on Thursday, university leaders said this was a "big issue" facing universities.

Nicola Dandridge, UUK chief executive, said: "What emerged from our work on this particular issue is that there is no clearly defined right or wrong here as to whether to allow or outlaw segregation. It is going to very much depend on the facts of the case."


A student group said this year that segregation at talks given by people it described as radical Islamists had become widespread.

Ms Dandridge said the guidance had been produced so that as many talks as possible could take place in universities "safely and within the law".

"External speakers play an important role in university life, not least in terms of encouraging students to think for themselves, challenge other people's views and develop their own opinions.

"Although most speakers are uncontroversial, some will express contentious, even inflammatory or offensive views. Universities have to balance their obligation to encourage free speech with their duties to ensure that the law is observed, the safety and security of staff, students and visitors secured, and good campus relations promoted. In practice, achieving this balance is not always easy.

"The easy route would be to ban and boycott discussions on controversial subjects. But universities have a vital role to play in securing free speech and promoting debate."

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Investigating Student Engagement in an Online Mathematics Course through Windows into Teaching and Learning

         Investigating Student Engagement in an Online Mathematics Course through Windows into Teaching and Learning

Teresa Petty

Associate Professor
Department of Middle, Secondary, and K-12 Education
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Charlotte, NC 28223 USA

Abiola A. Farinde
Graduate Research Assistant
Department of Middle, Secondary, and K-12 Education
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Charlotte, NC 28223 USA


The Windows into Teaching and Learning (WiTL) project is a method developed by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte that allows the facilitation of online clinical experiences for students during their content area methods course. WiTL was developed to address difficulties in securing meaningful clinical placements for interns during online summer coursework. WiTL encompasses both an asynchronous and a synchronous component. Through the use of dialogue, the purpose of WiTL is to engage interns with practicing classroom teachers and with each other as they consider various teaching methodologies and observe these methodologies in practice. The authors describe the WiTL process, its implementation, and ways in which the process has encouraged various levels of student engagement in an online mathematics methods course. The results indicate varying levels of student engagement and suggest that students are more engaged during the asynchronous portion of this study.

Keywords: online content methods courses, student engagement, distance learning, asynchronous online learning, synchronous online learning, online clinical experiences


Researchers at one southeastern University were experiencing difficulties with clinical placements during online summer coursework. During a summer school session, the challenge to find either year-round schools or schools that have a later end of year so that methods students can be placed in a classroom to observe teaching practices is problematic. In the past, students were allowed to observe the behavior of adolescents in other settings such as summer camps and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). These observations did not provide an ideal situation in which students could observe classroom teachers in their content area delivering instruction. In an effort to deliver meaningful learning experiences and bridge the gap between theory and practice, Windows into Teaching and Learning (WiTL) was conceptualized and implemented. WiTL offered online clinical observation experiences of practicing teachers in various grades and content areas.

The WiTL process utilized web-conferencing software supported by the University. Students were required to have access to a computer, the Internet, a headset, and a webcam to participate in WiTL activities. Students in methods courses observed the practices of teachers both synchronously and asynchronously. Following synchronous classroom observations, which were delivered via Wimba, methods students were given the opportunity to debrief with the practicing teachers, using a text chat feature in Wimba. Dialogue was exchanged regarding the pedagogical practices of the teachers and the rationale for using particular methodologies. Methods students also participated asynchronously by watching prerecorded videos of the practicing teachers. Following these viewings, they participated in an online threaded discussion, via NiceNet, with each other and the practicing teachers.

This research explored the engagement of university graduate students in an online middle grades/secondary mathematics methods course during summer clinical experiences. Student–student interactions (Moore, 1989) were closely examined through an analysis of the asynchronous threaded discussions and synchronous text chat communications using the engagement framework devised by Perkins and Murphy (2006). The examination revealed various levels of engagement among students in both the synchronous and asynchronous platforms. The guiding research question for this study was: To what extent do students in an online mathematics methods course engage in meaningful discourse and collaboration that encourages them to critically examine teacher pedagogy?

Literature Review

Teacher education programs, through the use of technology, offer online courses that seek to enhance student learning (Nandi, Hamilton, Harland, & Warburton, 2011). Of the many technology-based modes of instruction used in online teacher education courses, online discussion forums are often specifically used as a vehicle for the continual discussion of class topics and concepts. In addition, this learning environment, whether synchronous or asynchronous, facilitates the dissemination and acquisition of knowledge and enables student interaction and collaboration (Levine, 2007). Transforming the traditional learning context, these pedagogical tools allow greater access to classroom peers as well as a fluid exchange of content and resources with the intent of improving learning outcomes.

Although online teacher education courses are an innovative and unique pedagogical approach, their effectiveness is often questioned because student interaction in online discussion forums does not necessarily mean that students are actively engaged in the learning process (McLoughlin & Mynard, 2009; Robinson & Hullinger, 2008). In fact, solely fulfilling the specified participation and time requirements of an online course suggests that students are merely "doing time" rather than "doing education" (Zyngier, 2007). In doing time, students fail to go beyond the content, do not bridge theory and practice, and avoid authentic student engagement. Considering that deep learners are often more engaged than surface learners (Hockings, Cooke, Yamashita, McGinty, & Bowl, 2008) and that pre-service teachers' pedagogical training will influence the lives of their future students, engagement is a poignant topic for online teacher education courses.

When reviewing the literature, we found that at the collegiate level the definitions and measurement of online student-to-student engagement were limited. However, the literature did show that engagement is seen through numerous lenses (Zepke & Leach, 2010): student motivation (Schuetz, 2008), students' social and economic background (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005), institutional support (Kuh et al., 2005), peer interaction (Moran & Gonyea, 2003), teacher behavior (Bryson & Hand, 2007), etc. Although engagement is often difficult to define and measure in online courses, its absence and presence is identifiable. Due to the study's focus on student-to-student engagement, for the purpose of this study engagement is defined by Kuh (2003) as the efforts of the student to study a subject, practice, obtain feedback, analyze, and solve problems. This definition illustrates that engagement cannot be captured through a snapshot but rather has an interpersonal component. Engagement is best observed through interactions with others and through a development of complex ideas. For instance, echoing this definition of engagement, Guthrie and Anderson (1999) state, "social interaction patterns in the classroom can amplify or constrict students' ... attainment of deep conceptual knowledge" (p. 20). Furthermore, within the confines of face-to-face (F2F) schooling, engagement is seen as a multidimensional concept: behavioral, cognitive, and emotional (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). Behavioral engagement measures students' ability to follow school rules, their level of involvement in learning, and participation in extracurricular activity; cognitive engagement is students' investment in and active participation in learning as they move beyond required coursework; and emotional engagement is the positive and negative feelings students hold for school. Aligning – yet moving beyond – the aforementioned definitions, engagement in this study is measured in the context of students' interactions in an online mathematics methods course. Engagement can be identified in this particular learning environment as participants meaningfully contribute to online discussions. Within the asynchronous and synchronous forums, students commented, asked for clarification, posed questions, made inferences, assessed the learning environment, and collectively strategized about how to best bridge content and pedagogy. Their interactions with each other are the focal point of analysis and determine whether student-to-student engagement was present within the online discussions.

One of the challenges of online discussion forums is determining whether quality online engagement is actually occurring or whether students are passively interacting with their peers. In an era where more and more students are learning via online coursework (Murray, Pérez, Geist, & Hedrick, 2012), it is imperative that researchers determine if online learning can equally promote student engagement in comparison to a F2F learning environment. If student engagement is absent or minimized, then full cognitive development in a specific content area is unachievable. Because of this uncertainty regarding online engagement and due to the need to move beyond rote memorization of knowledge, an evaluation of online learning engagement levels must be performed to ensure positive learning outcomes for online students.

Synchronous (occurring in real time) and asynchronous (occurring over time) online discussion forums provide a space for open communication among students. Regardless of person or location, one's thoughts are transmitted to others, constructing new knowledge or further developing existing ideas. While both modes of communication serve a common purpose, asynchronous communication is often deemed more appropriate for facilitating active, meaningful engagement. Recognizing weakness in both communicative resources, Branon and Essex (2001) outline the disadvantages of both types of communication that may consequently hinder student engagement. They list the following restrictions when utilizing synchronous communication: (1) getting students online at the same time; (2) difficulty in moderating large-scale conversations; and (3) lack of reflection time. Similar to synchronous discussions, asynchronous communication equally places limitations on engagement due to the lack of immediate feedback, and the infrequency of students logging in to online discussion forums.

Students' level of engagement during synchronous and asynchronous communication is often challenged because students are not physically present in the same space, supposedly decreasing their opportunity to socially interact, collaborate, give and receive feedback, and render support (Tuckman, 2007). Although both modes of communication possess certain weaknesses, traditional F2F student communication does not guarantee meaningful student-to-student engagement. In fact, bodies in close proximity to one another, occupying a shared classroom, may promote interaction but may fail to facilitate active, engaged learning. Unlike traditional F2F student communication, there are numerous synchronous and asynchronous modes of communication, which are used to promote engagement. The diverse asynchronous (e-mail, listserv, discussion boards, and web logs) and synchronous (chat, instant messaging, and audio and web-based conferencing) modes of communication have the potential to increase interaction and improve online learning environments (Repman, Zinskie, & Carlson, 2005). Through the implementation of effective pedagogical learning principles delivered via online communication, a community of engaged, communicative learners may emerge (Peck, 2012).

As mentioned, although constraints are present in both communication tools, Schellens, Van Keer, and Valcke (2005) affirm that asynchronous discussion boards foster active engagement through a community of learners who teach one another and provide constructive feedback while sharing and gaining information. Im and Lee (2003) advocate the use of asynchronous over synchronous in generating a more effective learning environment. PytlikZillig et al. (2011) also compare synchronous F2F discussions and asynchronous computer-mediated discussions, asserting that computer-mediated discussions produce more effective engagement than F2F discussions.

Moreover, the flexibility and convenience of time, which allows for greater reflection and more collaboration among students, is often cited as a primary reason for why asynchronous discussion forums are a preferred learning resource (Ajayi, 2009; Nandi, Hamilton, & Harland, 2012). While extended time does not necessarily equate to student engagement, the opportunity to engage with others is greater, increasing the likelihood that such engagement may occur. The presence of this engagement, though logical, requires further empirical support. The need for more research on engagement within online forums (Su, Bonk, Magjuka, Liu, & Lee, 2005) reiterates the persistent question of whether students are actively engaged or passively participating. In seeking insight in this matter, we begin with the following research problem: Are students fully engaged in online synchronous and asynchronous courses?

Adding to the literature, this exploratory study examines synchronous and asynchronous student–student interactions (Moore, 1989) in an online middle grades and secondary mathematics methods course for graduate education students. Students' levels of engagement were coded using Perkins and Murphy's (2006) engagement framework. Perkins and Murphy's rubric measures individual engagement in critical thinking in an online asynchronous discussion. While this model was previously used in online asynchronous discussions, answering Perkins and Murphy's call for further research, this study sought additional empirical data by applying their model to asynchronous and synchronous discussions. Perkins and Murphy's model was deemed appropriate and applicable to asynchronous and synchronous modes of communication because different levels of engagement, which were illustrated by students' varying levels of critical-thinking questions and comments, were present in both discussion forums. Identification and measurement of student engagement in critical thinking in both settings revealed that regardless of the online medium, the implementation of sound, student-centered pedagogical practices will foster student engagement. Table 1 provides a detailed classification of the four engagement categories.

Table 1. Perkins and Murphy's (2006) model for identifying engagement in critical thinking

All aspects of stating, clarifying, describing (but not explaining), or defining the issue being discussed.Analyzes, negotiates, or discusses the meaning of the issue.
Identifies one or more underlying assumptions in a statement in the discussion.Identifies relationships among the statements or assumptions.Defines or criticizes the definition of relevant terms. Assessment:
Evaluating some aspect of the debate; making judgments on a situation, proposing evidence for an argument or for links with other issues.Provides or asks for reasons that proffered evidence is valid.Provides or asks for reasons that proffered evidence is relevant.Specifies assessment criteria, such as the credibility of the source. Makes a value judgment on the assessment criteria or a situation or topic.Gives evidence for choice of assessment criteria.Inference:
Showing connections among ideas; drawing appropriate conclusions by deduction or induction, generalizing, explaining (but not describing), and hypothesizing.Deduces relationships among ideas.Strategies:
Proposing, discussing, or evaluating possible actions.Predicts outcomes of proposed actions.Method

Project Description and Participants

The primary goal of WiTL was to provide a meaningful summer clinical experience for students enrolled in an online mathematics methods course. Data were collected from all students (n = 22) enrolled in the online summer mathematics methods course at the researchers' University. Researchers utilized a middle school and a high school based on faculty connections in working within the school and community. The three teachers of middle grades that were invited to participate in this project were identified by their principal as exemplary teachers. All three middle grade levels were represented: one teacher was a sixth-grade mathematics teacher, one a seventh-grade mathematics teacher, and one an eighth-grade mathematics teacher. The three high school teachers that were asked to join were also acknowledged by their principal as exemplary teachers. The three teachers collectively taught Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, Pre-Calculus, and Advanced Placement Calculus. Prior to the beginning of the summer methods course, each of the practicing teachers selected two exceptional lessons. These lessons were then videotaped during regular classroom instruction using a laptop, wireless headset, webcam, and TechSmith's Camtasia, a software application used for screen video capture.

The methods students viewed these 12 asynchronous videos (two per teacher) and then participated in an online dialogue regarding the practices they observed. These threaded discussions, facilitated through NiceNet, occurred over two weeks and allowed methods students to engage in conversation with the six practicing mathematics teachers and their peers. The conversations (examples provided in data analysis section) included dialogue between students regarding instructional methods and pedagogical thinking concerning the teaching and learning of mathematics for Grades 6 to 12.

The three middle school and three high school mathematics teachers were also asked to allow online mathematics methods students to participate in a live teaching observation. These synchronous teaching observations were facilitated using a computer connected to the Internet, a webcam, a wireless headset, and Saba Centra (the University-supported web conferencing software). These items were chosen because all online cohort students utilize these technological tools throughout their program coursework. Methods students logged on to Centra at the indicated class time to observe the teachers. They viewed six separate teaching episodes and participated in a text chat dialogue with their classmates during the observations. This viewing and interaction allowed students to ask one another questions regarding the classroom environment, classroom management, instructional methods, and pedagogical thinking.

Following the teaching observation, the classroom teacher joined the methods students in Centra to take comments about their teaching and answer questions regarding instructional decision making. Examples are provided in the Data Analysis section.

WiTL was a multifaceted project, and therefore, generated several data sources. These included individual interviews with each classroom mathematics teacher, focus group interviews with methods students at the conclusion of the semester, copies of the asynchronous threaded discussion forum, text chat logs of methods students conversations during the synchronous teaching observations, and archives of both the synchronous and asynchronous sessions. The data essential to this present study are the asynchronous threaded discussions, facilitated through NiceNet, and the text chat logs, facilitated during the synchronous teaching observations via Centra. The following research question guided the analysis of data:

To what extent do students in an online mathematics methods course engage in meaningful discourse and collaboration that encourage them to critically examine teacher pedagogy?

Data Analysis

The threaded discussions were analyzed to determine various levels of student-to-student engagement during online clinical experiences. Researchers used content analysis to quantify levels of engagement based on students' questions and comments in the threaded discussions. Students' levels of engagement with each other were coded using Perkins and Murphy's (2006) engagement framework presented in Table 1. Various levels of analysis occurred. Initially, the researchers evaluated the data independently, determining which level of engagement was represented in the dialogue. Next, the researchers compared their analyses and determined inconsistencies. Finally, inconsistencies were discussed until final consensus was reached. This method of analysis allowed the researchers to establish inter-rater reliability (Neuendorf, 2002). Frequencies for each category were then tabulated.

The text chat logs, generated during the synchronous teaching observations, were analyzed in a similar manner using content analysis. Again, students' levels of engagement with each other were coded using Perkins and Murphy's (2006) engagement framework (see Table 1). Researchers conducted an independent analysis of the data to decide which level of engagement was represented in the various comments and questions stated during text chat sessions. Researchers then compared their analyses to determine inconsistencies. Once more, inconsistencies were debated until consensus was reached, allowing for the establishment of intercoder reliability (Neuendorf, 2002). Frequencies for each category were then recorded.


After the threaded discussions and text chat logs were analyzed, relative frequencies were tabulated. These data are presented in Table 2.

The data, although not conclusive, indicate varying levels of student engagement across both synchronous and asynchronous platforms. This distribution of student outputs across the engagement categories yields interesting results. The asynchronous forum postings show a higher percentage of Strategy engagement (15.2% vs. 7.9%) as well as a higher percentage of Clarification engagement (61% vs. 45.7%). The synchronous forum postings indicate something different. The categories of Assessment (35.3% vs. 17.5 %) and Inference (11.1% vs. 6.3%) indicate higher levels of engagement for the synchronous platform.

Table 2. Frequency of student output – synchronous vs. asynchronous

(Threaded Discussion) It is important to note that the threaded discussion forum was available to students and classroom teachers for two weeks, while the text chat logs were offered during six synchronous teaching observations with durations of 75 to 90 minutes each. All four categories of engagement were observed in both the threaded discussions and text chat logs. Students in both settings engaged more at the level of clarification. This was apparent as students asked questions and made comments regarding the classroom context (i.e., configuration of the desks/classroom, decoration of the classroom, technology available to students, academic levels of students, etc.). As the level of engagement increased on Perkins and Murphy's (2006) engagement framework, the relative frequency of students' comments and questions decreased with the exception of the Strategies category. This could be warranted due to the time required for students to reflect on teachers' actions and offer possible justifications. All four categories were observed, but as noted above, engagement cannot be solely measured by frequency (doing time). A critical examination of the actual content presented by students during the threaded discussions and text chat dialogues must also be considered when determining students' engagement level.

The data presents examples of authentic student engagement. For example, the following are distinct comments and statements posted by one student and responded to by another student during the asynchronous online discussion forum (NiceNet). In this exchange students share questions they still have about slope and direct variation and suggestions for teaching systems of equations. This exchange reinforces the notion that students can learn important teaching strategies from one another when they have the opportunity to discuss their ideas. The level of engagement based on Perkins and Murphy's (2006) framework is indicated [in brackets, and rendered in bold].

Student 1: "I really like how you [the teacher] make the association between slope and direct variation because that is a topic that my ninth-grade Algebra I students have a hard time with. Do you have any other suggestions on how to make it clearer? [Strategies] Also why did they change the variable to "k" instead of leaving it as "m"? [Clarification] I am a math major (not an education major) and I still am not sure why the variables in direct variation and slope intercept changed. I know it is a little late in the year for this stuff and you may have done this before, but there is a cool activity to do with solving systems. You break the students in groups and have them do an advertisement for a particular method. I make my students show examples, write a definition, make a logo, a slogan and a valid argument as to why their method is better than all the others. I also make them present it in front of the class. They usually have fun with it. [Strategies]"

Student 2: "I am also a math major and have never understood why the variable changed. I look forward to the teacher's answer! [Clarification] Also, thanks for sharing that method! Systems of equations was the topic I struggled the most with teaching this year and am concentrating on to make it better for next year. I love your project idea and am definitely going to implement that into my classroom! [Assessment]"

The exchange below is also taken from the NiceNet threaded discussion. It exemplifies quality engagement during student-to-student interaction. The students really push each other to think about the topic of fractions and consider various situations in which fractions are used. Both students are making connections, providing examples, going beyond the content, and actively contributing to the discussion.

Student 3: "When in real life do we ever really use fractions? I can think of obvious ones: slices of pizza, talking about discounts and sales tax, but other than those, I'm not sure I really know if we DO use fractions. [Assessment]"

Student 4: "I would argue that we use fractions every time we have to use division. If you look at a class and want to know what percentage of the students did their homework, you are going to have to collect the raw data first. If 16 out of 20 students did their homework, that is a fraction, 16/20. After you know that fraction, you are able divide and determine what that number is as a decimal and percentage. I agree that numbers are not usually left as fractions, and that fractions do not always look as polished as decimals do, but they are something that is used in many people's daily lives. [Assessment]"

Student 3: "Thank you for pushing my thinking. However, if we are using a fraction to solve for a percent on a test, wouldn't we convert it to a decimal to understand it better? Maybe it is the way I think and not the way the world works, but I understand 80% much better than I understand 16/20 even though they represent the same amount. Also, will we ever have to multiply, divide, add, or subtract fractions in real life? I absolutely agree that students need to be able to convert fractions to decimals to percents and vice versa, but will it hurt them to use a calculator to always compute with fractions (as in adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing)? I am not sure I know the answer to that question ... [Assessment]"

The following are individual comments made by students to students during the synchronous teaching observations via the text chat feature in Centra. In this exchange, students are discussing the note taking methods used by the teacher they are observing. This exchange reveals the ideas that the students have regarding this technique. The level of engagement based on Perkins and Murphy's (2006) framework is indicated.

Student 1: "How structured do you think note taking should be? Right now, they're basically writing exactly what he dictates. [Clarification]"

Student 2: "I think it will depend on my students ... may have to feel it out ... [Assessment]"

Student 3: "I think that note taking is a skill that has to be explicitly taught. [Assessment]"

Student 4: "I agree that it has to be taught, but you can't learn if you always are just copying something ... [Assessment] Maybe this is a good method for younger students who are still in the beginning stages, though. [Inference]"

The exchange below is also taken from the text chat log. During this exchange, students are observing a teacher-centered classroom. The teacher is initiating traditional instructional methods. The students are offering suggestions for getting the middle school students motivated as many of them are visibly disengaged.

Student 1: "Maybe some cooperative learning activities and more game type learning would motivate them a little more. Make the students think they're playing instead of learning. [Strategies]"

Student 2: "They will think it is a reward for passing the test. [Strategies]"

Student 3: "The teacher should consider maybe not teaching new information but readdressing what they did not get. [Strategies]"

The comments/questions presented above demonstrate the various levels of engagement that students exhibited as they participated in both the threaded discussions and the text chat dialogues. Students discuss a variety of issues that they see as they observe teaching practices via synchronous and asynchronous observations.


As with most research studies, this study does have its limitations. The most apparent limitation is the small sample size, making the results difficult to generalize. The study was conducted over a short period of time – one semester during the summer. In the course of this study, there were technical difficulties. During two of the synchronous teaching observations, the teachers had difficulty with their wireless headsets, which resulted in periods of no sound for the online methods students who were viewing the teaching observations. This issue was quickly resolved. Another possible limitation relates to the asynchronous threaded discussion. Since this is a monitored forum, students may have felt more inclined to participate and to provide thoughtful responses.

The use of the Perkins and Murphy (2006) framework could also be viewed as a limitation. It was first developed for use with the asynchronous platform. This study took it a step further and utilized it with both asynchronous and synchronous platforms.


In this study, the researchers explored the guiding research question: To what extent do students in an online mathematics methods course engage in meaningful discourse and collaboration that encourage them to critically examine teacher pedagogy? It was determined that students engage in all levels of engagement as defined by Perkins and Murphy (2006) in both asynchronous and synchronous platforms. While asynchronous forum postings show a higher percentage of Strategy engagement (15.2% vs. 7.9%) as well as a higher percentage of Clarification engagement (61% vs. 45.7%), the synchronous forum postings indicate something different. The categories of Assessment engagement (35.3% vs. 17.5 %) and Inference engagement (11.1% vs. 6.3%) presented higher levels of engagement for the synchronous platform. The settings of the individual platforms would certainly encourage this. In the asynchronous environment, students would have more time to reflect and therefore offer strategies. Clarification engagement may be more present in the asynchronous platform because students in the synchronous platform were afforded opportunities to get clarification to these questions during the synchronous settings that were not readily available in the asynchronous setting. This notable constraint does differ from the literature, which asserts that asynchronous is preferable. The results of the WiTL study suggest that the asynchronous and synchronous platforms are emphasizing different types of engagement. Future research studies are needed to determine which method is more beneficial, or if one method is better at engaging students in an online environment.

WiTL proved to be a beneficial experience for methods students. It offered outreach to students across the state through an innovative approach to clinical experiences. WiTL provided the online methods students not only the opportunity to view sound teaching practices, it also allowed them the chance to engage with practicing mathematics teachers to confirm their understandings of methodologies and pedagogical decision making. During a typical clinical observation experience, a student would be placed with one teacher and one classroom. In this online mathematics methods course, students were placed in different classrooms across a variety of schools. WiTL was a unique experience in that it allowed online methods students to observe six different teachers in two different schools and school systems, exposing them to an assortment of teaching styles in a variety of classroom environments. Since WiTL allowed the online methods students to observe the same teachers, an exchange of thoughts and ideas related to the instructional strategies they observed was also facilitated. The WiTL process was equally valuable to the practicing mathematics teachers as it allowed them the opportunity to critically reflect on their teaching practices as they considered questions that the methods students posed. Through WiTL, methods students were able to utilize technology to engage in online clinical experiences at various levels with their peers.


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MOOCs and the Liberal Arts College

         MOOCs and the Liberal Arts College

Claudia W. Scholz

Coordinator of Research Programs
Office of Academic Affairs
Trinity University
San Antonio, TX 78212 USA


In this paper, the author examines lessons from massive open online courses (MOOCs) for small liberal arts colleges (LACs) in the United States. While some consider MOOCs a threat to LACs, they can also be seen as a provocation to spur small institutions to improve their offerings and assert their place in the higher education landscape. The paper examines how LACs might draw on the best tools, approaches, and structures emerging from the MOOC revolution in order to help students build lifelong learning habits.

Keywords: massive open online course (MOOC), liberal arts college (LAC), institutional strategy, lifelong learning


At first blush, the massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered by Coursera, edX, and Udacity contrast markedly with the learning environment of liberal arts colleges (LACs). Where MOOCs are massive, LACs are defined by small classes. Where MOOCs are open, LACs cultivate selectivity. Where MOOCs operate in the "high-tech" realm of online content delivery and "big data," LACs emphasize residential interactions and "high-touch" relationships. For these reasons and others, some higher education leaders have discounted the educational value of MOOCs and doubt their potential to disrupt the liberal arts tradition (Edmundson, 2012; Falk, 2012).

Nevertheless, MOOCs are of great interest and concern to those of us committed to the LAC experience. Free college-level courses raise economic and existential concerns for small colleges with high tuition rates (Judson, 2013). On the flip side, careful employment of MOOCs could provide alternative income streams, enrollment options, and credentialing frameworks to better position small colleges in a challenging and highly competitive higher education market. Certain approaches and technologies popularized by MOOCs may be adapted to support instruction at LACs, for example, offering remediation outside of class-time to students who need support, scaffolding individual problem-solving tasks (An, 2010), or supplementing the curriculum with more advanced or rare opportunities.

More importantly, MOOCs provoke us, as faculty, to examine our own teaching practice. We defend the unique value of face-to-face interactions with our students while allowing traditional pedagogies and authoritarian classroom roles to dominate our practice. We cling to traditional texts and ways of producing them, even as our students produce videos and curate content online (Lukes, 2012). Insofar as MOOCs provoke LAC faculty to think more deeply about learning, exploring new approaches, and reviving sometimes staid teaching techniques, they present an exciting opportunity (Davidson, 2012b).

This position paper outlines some of the ways in which LACs can adapt and flourish in the face of MOOCs, adopting the best of educational technologies while asserting the continuing value of the liberal arts college tradition.

MOOCs as a Threat

In 50 years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it.(Harden, 2013, p. 55)

"Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won't survive. It's as large a change as when we first got the printed book ... Higher education is in deep crisis."
– Peter Drucker (quoted in Lenzner & Johnson, 1997, p. 126)

MOOCs have been portrayed as a disruption (Horn & Christensen, 2013), a "tsunami" (Brooks, 2012), a threat to faculty autonomy and intellectual property (Schmidt, 2013), a Trojan horse disguising for-profit motives (Cost et al., 2013), and a "techno-utopian fantasy of automating higher education and driving its price to zero" (Mazel, 2012, para. 2). The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education termed 2012 the "year of the MOOC" (Pappano, 2012; Watters, 2012b), and predictions abounded that institutions of higher education would soon face the same fate as travel agents and record labels, made obsolete by cheap or free online alternatives (Shirky, 2012).

Nevertheless, history tells us that traditional institutions of higher education will likely continue to coexist with MOOCs (Siemens & Matheos, 2010). As Peter Drucker's comment above illustrates, predictions about the Internet destroying higher education are nearly as old as the World Wide Web itself. Large, elite institutions may be shielded, at least in the short term, by their reputations and endowments from the impact of MOOC mania. Indeed, some of these institutions – for example, Stanford University, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – are centers for the production of MOOCs, being the birthplaces of the "Big-Three" MOOC platforms: Coursera, edX, and Udacity. Local and highly specialized institutions, including many community colleges, will likely also weather the storm because of their niche markets and lower costs (Cusumano, 2013). The institutions deemed most vulnerable in this revolution are those in the middle, where costs are high but the buffers of reputation and endowments are lower. LACs are in the eye of the storm.

This storm has been brewing for quite some time. It is part of a changing dynamic within all information industries that reduces the power and influence, indeed the necessity, of mediating institutions (Siemens & Matheos, 2010). It is also shaped by a cultural shift in the meaning and purpose of education. While LACs espouse a holistic approach to education, emphasizing citizenship and critical thinking over specific career skills, the MOOC revolution is part of a larger trend to view education as a service. This consumer-oriented view emphasizes the connections between higher education and future employment or income (Kiley, 2012).

The residential college experience, while always limited in practice, has traditionally occupied a dominant place in the cultural imagination. The vision of higher education as a "bundled" product provided by one's "alma mater" is giving way to the idea that education can be cobbled together with online courses (massive or less so), internships, and other learning experiences (Kamenetz, 2010). MOOC providers like Coursera and Udacity emphasize the link between education and employment by offering placement services, promising to bring successful students to the attention of Google and other big-name companies. These cultural and economic changes, coupled with rising tuition, started to take their toll on LACs long before the MOOC "tsunami." Out of 212 LACs identified in 1990, only 130 can still be classified as such today. Most of the remainder changed their institutional missions to orient themselves more to the professions while some merged with other institutions and a few closed their doors (Baker, Baldwin, & Makker, 2012; Jaschik, 2012).

Institutions that will weather this latest storm are the ones that are able to convince students, parents, and donors that their model of education is not only viable, but superior to free or cheap alternatives. Already, institutions are rallying their defenses, pointing to the value of a face-to-face education. Statistics professor Susan Holmes in an oft-quoted Public Broadcasting Service interview, opines, "I don't think that you can give a Stanford education online, in the same way as I don't think that Facebook gives you a social life" (Michels, 2013, para. 39). This has been the response of many defenders of traditional educational models. Critics of MOOCs are also quick to point to a number of high-profile failures, including student complaints about a lack of faculty responsiveness (Watters, 2012a), and technological limitations (Kolowich, 2013b) that highlight the growing pains of the Big-Three MOOC platforms. While such criticisms are important, the challenge of MOOCs is not just in their technology and structure, but in the way they are changing expectations about the cost and delivery of education.

MOOCs as Tools for Blended Learning

"Does it really make sense to have thousands of community-college instructors developing the same courses?"
– Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller (quoted in Kamenetz, 2012, "Tech Ed," para. 28)

Professors may well assign MOOCs as homework, for example, and then build on the information in them through more in-depth and interactive discussions in the classroom. This has been referred to as "flipping the paradigm," so that the classroom is used for interaction, not passive absorption of the professor's insights. (Skorton & Altschuler, 2013)

A number of faculty and administrators from elite LACs have taken an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach to MOOCs. Wellesley College became a partner in edX in December of 2012 and Wesleyan University faculty are offering courses through Coursera in 2013 (Tilsley, 2012). Even LACs not interested in producing MOOCs themselves are looking for ways to employ MOOCs in their own courses or degree programs. Indeed, MOOCs fit into the blended learning approach (Daly, 2013) currently espoused by many LACs. The Associated Colleges of the South has instituted a grant program to incentivize blended learning. Faculty at Wesleyan and Bryn Mawr College have integrated modules from the Open Learning Initiative (OLI) at Carnegie Mellon University into courses on statistics and chemistry (Kolowich, 2012c).

Blended approaches purport to combine the best of online and face-to-face teaching and learning. Technology offers students access to multimedia materials and asynchronous, self-scheduled learning, removing content delivery from the face-to-face classroom to make room for problem solving, knowledge-application, and hands-on activities. The insertion of MOOCs into this framework can be problematic, however. Aligning a face-to-face course with a MOOC is not the same as adopting a textbook or putting together a course packet. I summarize some of the contrasts in Table 1.

Table 1. Textbooks and MOOCs – comparing elements

Supplementary multimedia content and quiz banks often available at extra costQuizzes and assignments usually embedded in video content Available during period designated by the provider, with the exception of some self-paced Udacity courses (Marques & McGuire, 2013)

Intended for use in a course settingTerms of Service may limit the free use of the materials for credit-bearing courses (Kolowich, 2012b)

Responsibility of purchase lies with the studentResponsibility for any required fees lies with the institutionEasy for instructor to skip a chapter, assign alternate or supplementary readingsImpossible to replace or customize content within the MOOC itselfGenerally copyedited and aided by graphic designer, fact checkers, and editorsVideo production value leaves a lot to be desired (Scholz, 2012)

Since MOOCs are generally based on existing face-to-face courses, they follow the rhythm of their home campus in terms of semester length, lecture frequency, and workload. While pieces of MOOCs, such as video lectures, simulations, assignments, quizzes, and exams may be of use in a face-to-face class, the online course as a whole may be too inflexible to allow such materials to be easily blended with a face-to-face class on a different campus. MOOCs are structured as hubs around which individual learners gather, not as open educational resources or even learning management systems that can be adapted to other purposes, though recent agreements between Coursera and 10 state university systems may signal a change, with promise that "professors teaching at these schools will have the opportunity to develop online courses through Coursera, as well as adapt existing Coursera courses for their own classrooms" (Coursera, 2013, para. 3).

MOOC as a Provocation

Content is easily duplicated and has no value. What is valuable, however, is that which can't be duplicated without additional input costs: personal feedback and assessment, contextualized and personalized navigation through complex topics, encouragement, questioning by a faculty member to promote deeper thinking, and a context and infrastructure of learning. Basically: human input costs make education valuable. (Siemens, 2011, para. 12)

By democratizing Ivy League-level lectures, Coursera and its cohorts will force the nation's colleges to prove their value in other ways. (Oremus, 2012, para. 14)

Arguably the most important role MOOCs can currently play for LACs is as a foil against which to demonstrate our value. Insofar as MOOCs push educators to reflect on the nature of learning, they are a welcome challenge (Davidson, 2012b). Already, conversations about MOOCs have prompted the development of a Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age (Brown et al., 2013; Davidson, 2013; Kolowich, 2013a), which will certainly provide fodder for thinking about learning, both online and offline, for some time.

The flurry of attention paid to the Big-Three MOOC platforms in the last year has yielded fruitful comparisons to early experiments in MOOCs led by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in Canada, including the 2008 inaugural course titled Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08). A U.S. example (though these courses transcend national boundaries) is Digital Storytelling (DS106), which has been coordinated by Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington since 2010. These courses, now termed connectivist or "cMOOCs" (Siemens, 2012) to contrast them with Big-Three "xMOOCs," use social media and Rich Site Summary to distribute course materials and manage virtual discussions (Downes, 2011). While xMOOCs center the video lecturer as the focus of the course and the course platform as its hub, the objective of cMOOCs is for students to create shared knowledge and take charge of their own learning using a blog or social media account to communicate with their peers. Indeed, the connectivist model of cMOOCs provides options for incorporating online technologies into the classroom that may be more suited to the missions and habits of LACs (King & Nanfito, 2012).

The following subsections will explore in greater detail how the challenge of MOOCs might bring about new opportunities for LACs to improve student learning and affirm the value of the education we provide.

What Could "Massive" Mean for LACs?

MOOCs offered by the Big-Three platforms have averaged 50,000 enrollees, with a high of 180,000 (see, for example, How to Reason and Argue, offered byDuke University). While completion rates typically range from far below 10% to a high of 19%, the smallest number of students reportedly completing a MOOC on one of the Big-Three is 313 (in Duke's Bioelectricitycourse), more students than typically enroll in the largest lecture class at many LACs. The first high-profile xMOOC, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, was completed by an astounding 22,000 students, more than most LAC faculty will teach in an entire career (Jordan, 2013).

The scale of massive classes is both enticing and abhorrent to LAC faculty. The ability to reach thousands of students serves a dissemination mission, exposing people to our disciplines who might not otherwise have that opportunity. The diversity of student experiences and ideas in a massive course offers the possibility for discussion and cross-cultural connection impossible in our small and somewhat homogenous classrooms. Yet the massive scale of xMOOCs limits the amount and type of interaction between faculty and students. The mentorship and detailed feedback that is emblematic of the LAC experience is impossible with more than a few dozen students at a time. Coursera has replaced faculty feedback with peer grading, with predictably disappointing results (Watters, 2012a). These aspects of massive classes simply do not fit the mission or model of a LAC education.

Where scale would benefit LACs is not at the "massive" level, but at the small to mid-range level. Colleges with few faculty in certain specialties could band together to offer courses or even degrees with other institutions. While such consortial relationships have emerged among neighboring institutions (e.g., Five Colleges), the Internet obviates the need for physical proximity. The Associated Colleges of the South, which includes 16 colleges in 12 U.S. states, has experimented with cross-campus offerings in selected foreign languages and classics (King & Nanfito, 2012). Such collaborations could preserve courses as well as faculty lines in otherwise unsustainable disciplines.

Another interesting application of MOOCs for LACs lies in distributed or networked (as opposed to "massive") courses. A possible model is the upcoming Feminist Dialogues on Technology, a "distributed online collaborative course" or "DOCC" coordinated by Alexandra Juhasz of Pitzer College and Anne Balsamo of the University of Southern California that will link courses on every continent through a set of online experiences and modules. Distributed courses may offer the best of both worlds: local, face-to-face classes with strong faculty involvement that are connected with other classes to achieve economies of scale, geographic reach, and diversity of opinions.

One area where massive courses offer some advantage over face-to-face instruction is in learning analytics. It would take years in a LAC setting to assemble student data sets adequate to validate certain kinds of teaching techniques or learning objects. In a MOOC, such data can be collected and acted upon in weeks or less. In fact, EDUCAUSE (2012) predicts that MOOC "platforms may evolve from course-delivery systems toward adaptive learning platforms – systems that personalize the experience based on the learner's performance" (p. 1). However, Robbins (2013) worries that this data will be employed for marketing (in the manner of Facebook) rather than enhancing learning. At this writing, the OLI seems to be the only platform to harness these sorts of data for the immediate benefit of the learner.

What Could "Open" Mean for LACs?

"Free software" is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of "free" as in "free speech," not as in "free beer."(Stallman, 2013a, para. 3)

The word "open" is used in at least three different ways in these debates, most of which are only partly realized through the Big-Three MOOC platforms. The first interpretation of "open" is free of cost. At this point, the Big-Three MOOCs are free of charge to the student, though there is speculation about whether this is sustainable. Some institutions, like Antioch University, have entered into financial agreements with MOOC platforms to use MOOCs in credit-bearing courses or independent studies (Kolowich, 2012a). Some MOOCs charge for the completion certificate or to take a face-to-face test to certify what the student has learned. There is much speculation about the eventual business model of MOOCs. Of the Big-Three, both Coursera and Udacity are for-profit ventures, beholden to investors and eventually, shareholders. Questions abound regarding the business models that might emerge in the MOOC industry. It has yet to be determined if profits will come from student fees, university licenses (in the manner of software licenses), or selling student data (Robbins, 2013).

MOOCs are free to students because they are highly subsidized by institutions, foundation support (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, and others), and venture capital investment (Anders, 2013; Dunn, 2010). Few LACs are in a financial position to offer MOOCs of their own because of the cost of producing the video content, building or licensing the platform, and assuring that the online distribution of the course materials does not violate intellectual property law.

The second way of interpreting "open" has to do with barriers to entry. MOOCs have no admissions criteria. Anyone can sign up. Most LACs have extensive admissions criteria, including transcripts, essays, test scores, and often, interviews. The admissions process ostensibly limits the student body to those most likely to thrive. Advising and other student support services are in place to make sure that admitted students, particularly those deemed at risk, do not fall through the cracks. Once enrolled, students must fulfill prerequisites before moving on to more specialized courses. A student might be a junior before approaching a class in artificial intelligence, for example. Committing to an open course would mean abandoning the commitment to student success, a decision LACs would not take lightly.

The flip side of open enrollment is notoriously high dropout rates. Breslow et al. (2013) characterize the edX Circuits and Electronics course, which had a 5% completion rate, as "a funnel with students 'leaking out' at various points along the way" (p. 21). Low completion rates have been dismissed as simply part of online life, where most users are not active participants and most enrollees are not intending to complete the course. However, some proportion of students who do not complete a given MOOC "encountered difficulties ... that demotivated and damaged them, difficulties that caused them to believe that they weren't good enough; but we don't know who they are, and we don't know what those difficulties were" (Tracey, 2013, "The Danger of Expertise," para. 5).

The third way of interpreting "open" harkens back to Richard Stallman's admonition that truly free software "respects the users' essential freedoms: the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes" (Stallman, 2013b, para. 1). Using this definition, the degree of openness in MOOCs is highly variable. A few MOOC platforms offer some of their software for reuse or modification (see Khan Academy, Class2Go, Google Course Builder, and Stephen Downes' gRSShopper). The software running edX was released as open source in Summer 2013 (EdX, 2013).

As for content, some course videos used in MOOCs are available on YouTube as well and could be repurposed in other contexts. Many of the course readings are online and available for other uses. In the case of some edX courses, the materials have been online for years as part of MIT's OpenCourseWare. However, some MOOC platforms employ Terms of Service that restrict the use of the courses or materials in credit-bearing settings (Udas, 2012).

Of even greater concern is the degree to which xMOOCs lock down student data. In many cases, student work is difficult to export. Data generated from the students' interactions with the site are not transparent to the learner. Even aggregate data is only available when the instructor posts it online (for examples, see Devlin, 2013; Severance, 2012). With the exception of Udacity, which has built a portfolio site ( for showcasing student projects, xMOOC providers retain the role of arbiter and owner of student credentials.

Insofar as LACs venture into the MOOC movement, we must commit to openness. Just as LACs have begun to adopt open-access policies, requiring faculty to make their research available in online repositories (Miller, 2011), our institutions must affirm a commitment to open educational resources, adopting, investing in, and producing open content and open platforms, and ensuring that structures and norms established for MOOCs emphasize student ownership of their own work in the class and the assessment data generated. LACs should adopt and expand upon the Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age (Brown et al., 2013) and integrate the oversight of open and online education into institutional governance structures.

What Could "Online" Mean for LACs?

Online education allows learning to occur outside the boundaries of place and time. Learning can take place outside a single classroom or building, and across great geographic and cultural distances. While students may be sitting alone at their computers, through online communication via text or multimedia, they can be connected to peers around the globe. Lovejoy (2012) offers an example of synchronous online discussion using the simultaneous editing function in Google Docs during a video webinar on Google Hangouts. He found that verbal and non-verbal cues were as intelligible and communication as rich in this format as they would have been in a face-to-face classroom, despite the fact that all of the participants were in different locations.

Even for LACs, which are traditionally residential institutions (where learning takes place in the classroom, library, and dormitory, but seldom off-campus), online tools may prove to be useful. Online communication could help campuses welcome students who have not yet matriculated (e.g., recruitment, admissions, new student orientation) or those who have graduated (e.g., alumni relations). Credit-bearing courses offered online could help students stay on track to graduate on time even while taking advantage of off-campus opportunities like study abroad and internships.

In addition to mediating communication across space, computing technologies afford students the possibility to complete tasks on their own schedule and sometimes at their own pace, opening up the possibility of student-directed learning both within and outside a traditional academic calendar. Online courses are doing away with traditional class formats, breaking videos of longer lectures into smaller pieces interspersed with comprehension questions or short application exercises (Kamenetz, 2012). This is similar to what some instructors are attempting to do with clicker and polling technologies in face-to-face classrooms. Students can even speed up or slow down these recorded lectures, or simply skim the transcript instead, though some argue that even these shorter learning units may be too long for the way people use the Internet today – with divided attention, often on mobile devices in public places (Manjoo, 2013; Tauber, 2013).

Computing technology is making it possible for students to receive immediate feedback on certain kinds of work, without waiting for the intervention of an instructor or human grader. Data about student use of course materials can be correlated with comprehension outcomes to offer insights about learning. Such analyses could help a student determine whether she retains more information by reading an article or watching a video about the material, or whether he is likely to score higher when taking an assessment in the evening or first thing in the morning. Computers are not well suited for assessing higher-order critical thinking or communication skills, but for content retention and mastery of rote skills, technology can potentially offer timely, more frequent, and more fine-grained feedback than a human instructor.

Directors of all three xMOOC providers tout the power of collecting user data to transform education, but exactly how learning analytics will be used to change the user experience in MOOCs is only starting to come to light (Chu, 2013; Mackay, 2013). However, user data in MOOCs is not available to the student, the instructors using the MOOC for blended learning, or in one reported case, even to the professor who developed the course (Guzdial, 2013).

While LAC faculty are embracing blended learning models, it is unlikely that an online-only approach will ever become the norm for these institutions. Even some of the messages coming from xMOOC providers themselves raise doubts about online-only learning. Examination of user data from the edX Circuits and Electronics course revealed that "those who worked on course material offline with a classmate or 'someone who teaches or has expertise' in the subject did better than those who did not" (Kolowich, 2013c, para. 2). Coursera announced in May 2013 new agreements with 10 state university systems to use Coursera content in support of, rather than to replace face-to-face instruction (Coursera, 2013).

What Could "Course" Mean for LACs?

We say explicitly that the content is the "McGuffin" – it is the thing that gets people together, gets them talking, gets them thinking in new ways ... As time goes by, the people at Codecademy and Udacity will understand that the community that forms around the courses or subjects are a lot more important than the content. (Downes, 2012, section 3, paras. 3, 8)

The Big-Three MOOCs emphasize the course as the unit of instruction, just as higher education is moving into a "post-course era" (Bass, 2012, p. 24). Over the last decade, most LACs have implemented some combination of linked or clustered courses, co-curricular and community tie-ins, student portfolios, research experiences, and other mechanisms for fomenting learning outside the traditional semester-long course. In fact, MOOC technologies may prove most useful to LACs precisely in the areas between and around courses.

Open online approaches have clear applications in the co-curriculum, particularly in new student orientation, leadership training, and other activities that are repeated annually for students from a variety of classes and majors. Academic applications that transcend the course include training in techniques or methods that span different classes and disciplines (e.g., information literacy or library instruction, lab safety or instrument calibration training). Online courses or modules may be employed for refresher or remedial courses for at-risk students or those whose mastery of prerequisite material is in doubt. Preliminary data show that online OLI modules helped at-risk students succeed in certain courses at Bryn Mawr, for example (Kolowich, 2012c).

A MOOC offered as a recruitment tool (King & Nanfito, 2012), or as a way of keeping alumni engaged, would employ learning as a way of building connections to the institution to those outside the residential student body. For example, Middlebury College has offered online courses for alumni on Social Entrepreneurship and the Poems of Robert Frost, while Amherst College maintains an online book club for alumni (Stillman, 2012). Online tools could be employed to foster true connections to local or global movements for social good (Davidson, 2012a). The most important way that LACs could employ MOOC technologies and structures is to help students form personal learning networks and communities of practice that can extend beyond their classrooms and campus and continue long after they have received their grade or even graduated.

Lifelong learning is not an abstract solitary endeavor, but a skill and value that is central to the mission of LACs. Laura Gibbs, online educator from The University of Oklahoma opines, "I think the real power of MOOCs is not as content delivery; I think the power of MOOCs is in getting people to create and collaborate together ... The missing ingredient is educational communities that really work" (deMause, 2013, para. 27).


Even as MOOCs drive the price of structured educational content downward and engender new forms of educational engagement and credentialing (Pappano, 2012), LACs have an opportunity to reaffirm our core strengths and value. The LAC experience has never been exclusively about disciplinary content. The definitive LAC experience revolves around the transformation of individuals, intellectually and emotionally, to produce exemplary citizens. By examining MOOCs in a thoughtful, proactive manner, LACs have an opportunity to understand their promise to enable students' lifelong learning and use these lessons to innovate the liberal arts. As Jonathan Marks of Ursinus College poignantly states:

Coursera and similar products are, for the most part, not designed to replace the kinds of undergraduate institutions that catch students during a period of momentous change in their lives, and respond to their need to discover and bring to completion their best mature selves ... [MOOCs] are in the self-improvement business. We are in the self-formation business. (Marks, 2012, para. 13)


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In Fall 2012, Trinity University's Office of the Vice President for Information Resources provided a pilot grant to support a conversation about MOOCs on Trinity's campus. Participants in this pilot were Dr. Jenny Browne, Dr. Jennifer Steele, Dr. Mark Lewis, and Dr. Sean Connin. The Associated Colleges of the South Faculty Advancement Program provided a grant to expand this conversation to other campuses in the consortium. Participants in this ongoing, second phase include Forrest Stonedahl of Centre College, Bryan Bibb and Mary Fairbairn of Furman University, Chris Campolo and Gabriel Ferrer of Hendrix College, Richard Lu of Spelman College, and Aaron Delwiche and Dennis Ugolini of Trinity University. Both projects are documented on a group blog and online panel discussions. Guest panelists included Wayne Anderson of the Associated Colleges of the South, Audree Hernandez of AdviseTX, Matt Barsalou of Trinity's Admissions department, and Gundega Dekena of Udacity. These conversations have shaped the author's thinking about MOOCs. The ACS grant supported part of the literature collection presented in this position paper.

The author is indebted to Laura Gibbs for her many insights into online learning and for her comments on this paper. Additional valued comments came from Vidya Ananthanarayanan, Robert Chapman, Rebecca Frost Davis, Aaron Delwiche, Lisa Jasinski, and Charles White. Sean Connin made detailed revisions to the introduction and conclusion.

Responsibility for any failings in this article remains with the author.

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