Wes Announces All MOOCs All the Time!

No more classes, no more books, no more teachers’….. Wesleyan, which has been a pioneer in offering online classes (our Social Psychology class on Coursera is among the most popular on the internet) has decided to take the next VERY BOLD step!

As of next year all our classes will be offered online! Don’t worry about going to classes, don’t worry about labs…You can do your work at your own pace when you want to do it. If you want to see other people, just go to one of the myriad social events we are planning. These will, of course, have robust educational content, and they will build innovative capacity in our students by going beyond the classroom entirely. And think of it, we’ll be able to bring in the very best bands now that we don’t have to pay for classroom instruction. Spring Fling all year long!!

To find out more about our radical new plan (so Wesleyan!), go to the website.

Taking Wesleyan to the Bay Area

On March 9, I attended a wonderful Wesleyan event in San Francisco. More than 100 alumni and parents came out to hear about liberal education today, and to discuss the importance of financial aid support. I was joined by Jonathan Schwartz ’87 (shown below, far right), a scholarship kid who went on to do great things in the technology industry and who now runs CareZone, a company he co-founded to help families organize and attend to their health care data.

San Francisco: How to Destroy Higher Education

There were folks at the reception from across the generations, and we had a good conversation about reducing student debt and expanding the curriculum.

San Francisco: How to Destroy Higher Education

San Francisco: How to Destroy Higher Education

San Francisco: How to Destroy Higher Education

San Francisco: How to Destroy Higher Education

In the morning I visited our online partner Coursera to hear about some of their new specializations. I think Wesleyan can expand the quality and quantity of our MOOCs over the next several months.

I had spent the afternoon meeting with alumni and with colleagues at Stanford. I very much enjoyed the d-school’s open spaces and giddily innovative atmosphere. Some kinship with Wes at our best?

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The next day, I headed to Menlo Park for a conversation with writer Michael Chabon P ’17 and Bozoma Saint John ’99, head of consumer marketing at iTunes and Beats Music.

Menlo Park: How to Destroy Higher Education

Menlo Park: How to Destroy Higher Education

Menlo Park: How to Destroy Higher Education

Menlo Park: How to Destroy Higher Education

Menlo Park: How to Destroy Higher Education

The Case for Liberal Education

This past weekend I published some op-eds and did an interview on liberal education in conjunction with the appearance of my Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters. There’s even a radio spot Wisconsin Public Radio!

The following op-ed is from the Boston Globe‘s Sunday opinion section.

 

‘Is c” — that’s all I have to type before the search engine jumps to “Is college worth it?” I hit return, and there are more articles on this question than even I, a college president, want to read. Pundit after pundit (most of whom have had the benefit of a liberal education) question whether so many Americans should be going to college. Pulling the ladder up after they’ve already made the climb, they can’t seem to see why future students would want the same opportunities that they’ve had.

When I began my freshman year at Wesleyan University more than 35 years ago, there were no search engines, and I had only a vague notion of what a liberal arts education entailed. My father and my grandfather were furriers, and my mother a big band singer. Giving their children access to a college education was part of their American dream, even if they had little understanding of what happened on campus. Today I head up the same institution where I first stumbled into courses like Intro to Philosophy and Art History 101.

Much has changed in higher education in the past three decades. In the past year, for instance, I’ve taught not only on campus but also more than 150,000 students enrolled through Wesleyan’s partnership with Coursera, a provider of free massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

But students and their expectations have also shifted. Many undergraduates now behave like consumers, intent on building resumes. Parents often want their children’s education to be immediately useful, and with a dramatically shrinking job market, undergrads themselves are often eager to follow a straight and narrow path that they imagine will land them that coveted first job. A broad liberal education, with a significant opportunity to explore oneself and the world, is increasingly seen as a luxury for the entitled and scarcely affordable in a hyper-competitive world.

Throughout most of our history, Americans have aimed to expand the realm of what counts as a liberal education. In recent years, however, in sync with growing inequality, critics have argued that some people just don’t need a broad education because these folks will not be in jobs that will use advanced skills. Richard Vedder, director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, puts it this way: “Do you really need a chemistry degree to make a good martini?”

The bartender with a chemistry degree is the contemporary version of the Jeffersonian ideal of a farmer who reads the classics with pleasure and insight, or John Dewey’s image of the industrial worker who can quote Shakespeare. For generations of Americans, these have been signs of a healthy republic. But, for many critical of liberal education today, these are examples of a “wasted” — non-monetized — education. Furthermore, if ever more people are encouraged to get a college degree, won’t the degree be worth less — who wants to be a part of a club with that many members? We should beware of critics who cloak their desire to protect privilege (and inequality) in the garb of educational reform.

But employers do recognize the importance of a liberal education. The majority of those hiring agree that what’s important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success is having both field-specific skills and a wide range of knowledge. According to a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of the major, every college student should acquire a foundation in the liberal arts and sciences.

Even many of those enrolling in online courses want this broad-based education. The “massive” part of these open courses is the least interesting thing about them. And I don’t treat my students online like a mass. My aim, the same as with my “in-person” classes, is to “ignite the fire of learning” — as a student from Singapore put it — while bringing them into a more thoughtful and productive conversation with the world around them. I am trying to help them develop their critical thinking skills while also inviting them to become absorbed in great achievements in philosophy, history, and literature. And they respond with curiosity and enthusiasm and, most importantly, a desire to continue learning. “Learning makes me feel alive,” an older student in South India related.

The willingness today by some to limit higher education to only certain students or to constrict the college curriculum to a neat, instrumental itinerary is a critical mistake, one that neglects a deep American tradition of humanistic learning. This tradition has been integral to our nation’s success and has enriched the lives of generations of students by enhancing their capacities for shaping themselves and reinventing the world they will inhabit. Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to individual freedom, and to the ability to think for oneself and to contribute to society by unleashing one’s creative potential.

The pace of change in American higher education has never been faster, and the ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable. Our rapid search engines can only do so much: If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, we need pragmatic liberal education.

How to Make A Difference

I spent yesterday at the 92nd St Y in New York at the Social Good Summit. The Summit is “a three-day conference that unites a dynamic community of global leaders to discuss a big idea: the power of innovative thinking and technology to solve our greatest challenges.”  The summit is presented by 92 Street Y, Mashable, the United Nations Foundation, the United Nations Development Programme, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Ericsson. Coinciding with United Nations Week, the conference brought together business leaders, NGOs, activists, diplomats and technology people (to name just some of the groups). The talks were all fascinating, whether they were focused on improving sanitation, on action oriented journalism or on climate change. I was there to talk about liberal learning as a form of pragmatic education with deep roots in American history. These roots still bring forth powerful results — such as Shining Hope for Communities or Refuge Point (to take just two Wesleyan examples). Here’s video of my presentation:

Michael Roth Social Good Summit 2013

And an interview with Stuart Ellman ’88 and me following the talk:

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There was a wonderful spirit of optimism and activism at the conference, even though there was also a sharp awareness of the difficulties we face — from poverty to climate change. I am hopeful that that spirit continues to infuse the MOOC that we are developing based on many of the talks from the Summit. How to Change the World is now open for enrollments, and we’ll launch in mid January.

You can find other videos and photographs here.

 

 

Input, Innovation and the Residential University

Yesterday I sent messages to faculty, staff and students asking for new ideas to enhance the distinctive educational experience of Wesleyan students by making the most of our residential dimension. Our new Provost, Ruth Striegel Weissman, will be working with other Cabinet members to vet the short proposals we will receive. When I asked for input for big projects six years ago, we received ideas that enabled us to create new writing programs (eventually the Shapiro Writing Center), research stipends, and the College of the Environment. I can hardly wait to see what new ideas come forward this time!   

Here’s the faculty version of my email:

Dear Colleagues,

At last week’s faculty meeting I announced that we are inviting faculty members to submit 1-2 page proposals for initiatives that have the potential to significantly improve the distinctive educational experience of Wesleyan students by leveraging its residential dimensions. What kinds of programs should we strengthen or create to offer our students deeper opportunities for learning? What kinds of programs should we create or strengthen to extend the impact of the years spent on the Wesleyan campus?

Someone pointed out to me that I barely mentioned MOOCs in my remarks to the faculty. That’s because although our experiments in online education continue in modest ways, these are in no way substitutes for innovation on campus. Rather, they put into sharper relief what is so very valuable about residential education. I realize that our curriculum evolves organically, and that many departments are regularly renewing the offerings. But Ruth and I agree that this is a particularly propitious time to launch experiments aimed at enhancing our work as a residential liberal arts university. From advising to the First Year Seminars, from interdisciplinary programs to capstones, our work here should build on our residential foundations. How can we do so more effectively?

We need your ideas. We hope to receive 1-2 page proposals from faculty members by November 1. Proposals may be submitted to 2020@wesleyan.edu. We will also be soliciting ideas from students and staff. The Provost’s Office will convene a group to evaluate faculty proposals and choose a short list of contenders. At that point we will request more detailed proposals.

Thank you in advance for thinking about how we might even further energize the distinctive educational experience of Wesleyan students.

 

Online Education, Political Engagement

This week I’ve been in the Washington D.C. area for meetings with colleagues and alumni. The trip started out with a talk to the Annapolis Group, an organization of liberal arts colleges from across the country. I’d been invited to participate in a session devoted to teaching MOOCs, and I shared the podium with Andrew Shennan, Provost at Wellesley College. Andrew knows Wesleyan well, as he was part of our visiting team during the accreditation process. He spoke about the investment that Wellesley has made in EDx, and the long process that his campus is still going through to develop classes, produce them and share them through the platform started by Harvard and MIT. I’m sure their four classes will be interesting, and I look forward to seeing them in the coming year.

I spoke more about the experience of teaching a MOOC, and the surprises that came from working with very different kinds of students from around the world. I explained that I saw our large online classes neither as a quick revenue stream nor as a threat to the model of residential learning. The courses for now are free, and we don’t yet know how exactly they will be monetized. That’s why we are keeping our investment in MOOCs very modest, financially speaking. But we are learning a lot about teaching in a different medium and about how to communicate what liberal education is all about to students from around the globe. This will inform our work back on campus.

I explained to my liberal arts college colleagues that rather than seeing MOOCs as a threat to what we do, I see many of them as showing an appetite for the kind of broad, contextual learning that we prize. It was clear from many of the discussion boards for the Wesleyan classes on Coursera that students were learning for its own sake, and that they saw these courses as opportunities to broaden their intellectual horizons and connect with other people around the world who might have similar interests. There is no way that the experience of these online classes replicates the campus experience. The dynamic synergies of campus learning in a small residential setting are uniquely powerful. The online experience is quite different, but it, too, can provide a context of learning that is compelling for many students who otherwise would never have an opportunity for this kind of education. Through our Coursera classes, Wesleyan faculty have been able to share some of what we’ve learned on campus with an extraordinarily large and diverse audience. The appetite for liberal education is much deeper and broader than many of us had imagined!

Last night I moderated a conversation with three Wes alumni who exemplify many of the virtues of liberal education. Governors Peter Shumlin (Vermont) and John Hickenlooper (Colorado) and U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (Colorado) joined more than 150 Wesleyans in a campaign kick-off event in Washington, D.C. We spoke about the joys of public service and also about the frustrations of gridlock. Education was high on our list of issues to be addressed, and we also fielded questions from the audience concerning climate change, poverty, gender, money in politics, and the challenges of compromise in an age of hyper-partisanship.

316_this_is_why  eve_dc_2013-0619192952 (1)

There were several current students in the audience, as well as alumni from the last six decades. We all reconnected with old friends and made some new ones. We raised money for scholarships and reminded one another that Wesleyan’s progressive liberal arts education should inspire us to take on the most pressing issues in the public sphere.

THIS IS WHY.

 

Next Wesleyan Coursera Classes

This week two more Wesleyan classes debuted on Coursera. Richie Adelstein is teaching a six-week class called Property and Liability: An Introduction to Law and Economics. Andy Szegedy-Maszak is teaching The Ancient Greeks, a seven-week survey of Greek history from the Bronze Age to the death of Socrates. These are free, online versions of courses given at Wesleyan, and there is still time to enroll. Lisa Dierker’s class, Passion Driven Statistics, is a six-week project-based class that will begin March 25. Lisa’s class just received a great shout-out in Forbes magazine. Scott Plous’s Social Psychology class begins this summer and has already attracted amazing buzz.

Scott Higgins just finished up his class on The Language of Hollywood. Since I was also enrolled I can say that it was a great success. There is a strong demand for film studies classes, and his introduction to sound and color was a hit. One of the discussion threads on his class said that Prof. Higgins “deserved an Oscar,” but I especially enjoyed the hundreds of people who wrote in under the rubric, “Prof. Higgins, We Love You.”

I’m still working my way through my 14-week Modern and Postmodern class on Coursera. Students from around the world are giving me new insights into the material. One writes about thinking of Nietzsche as she watches her son ski into the woods, another about how she carries a copy of Baudelaire with her as she bikes around town. A student from across the globe writes that “learning makes me feel alive.”  I hope I can benefit from these diverse perspectives when I teach the class on campus next spring. Next week, Sigmund Freud and then on to Virginia Woolf!

Tuesday Update: Classes Resume and Why Does the World Exist?

Classes Resume this morning (Tuesday) thanks to the extraordinary efforts of our Physical Plant and Stonehedge crews. I am so grateful to all those who kept us safe and well-fed (thanks Bon Appetit!) during the aftermath of Blizzard Nemo. It’s still messy outside, so please be careful.
 
Several hundred students from the Coursera version of The Modern and the Postmodern have checked out this blog recently.  Welcome!
 
Recently the Washington Post asked me to review Jim Holt’s “Why Does the World Exist?”  This review is cross-posted with Sunday’s newspaper.
WHY DOES THE WORLD EXIST? An Existential Detective Story. By Jim Holt. Liveright. 309 pp. $27.95

Jim Holt likes to pursue questions — big questions. And he does so with a sincerity and light-heartedness that draw his readers along for the ride. He’s written for the New Yorker on tough subjects such as string theory and infinity, but his last book was on the seemingly more accessible topic of jokes. In “Why Does the World Exist?” — a finalist for this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction — he takes on one of the biggest questions in conversations with philosophers and scientists: What is the origin of everything?By helping readers understand what some very smart people think an answer to this question might look like, he introduces us to advanced mathematics, theology, physics, ontology and epistemology — just to name some subjects he visits. Holt is usually very good about not losing us along the way, even when the math or the logic gets pretty esoteric.“The transition from Nothing to Something seems mysterious,” he writes, “because you never know what you’re going to get.” That might be true if one were asking as a disinterested party, but Holt is anything but that. The “Something” he has in mind is us — how did we and our world come to be? He wants to know how nothingness, a state in which absolutely no things exist, gave rise to a universe that includes all the things around us. “Conceptually,” he writes, “the question Why does the world exist? rhymes with the question Why do I exist?”There are two major kinds of answers to these twinned questions. The first kind emphasizes the “how” — how a specific cause leads to a particular effect. Why am I here? Because my parents had sex. The second kind of answer moves from cause to meaning. Did my parents want a child? Do I have a purpose in life? What am I doing here? Some of the intellectuals with whom Holt talks sound as though they believe that if they thoroughly answer the “how” version of the question (the one that details causes), they will have answered the “why” version of the question (the one that provides meaning). Or perhaps they think that an airtight explanation of the emergence of causality will make the meaning question irrelevant.There are some philosophers, it should be said, who think Holt is just asking the wrong question. Most interesting is philosopher of science Adolf Grunbaum, who cheerfully tries to show our author that his anxious astonishment with the existence of the universe is misplaced. Unexamined religious longing for mystery and a confused sense that we need to figure out why nothingness does not prevail generate a confused question with no rational response: “Go relax and enjoy yourself! Don’t worry about why there’s a world — it’s an ill-conceived question.” But Holt is only briefly deterred, declaring, “There is nothing I dislike more than premature intellectual closure.”Holt travels in England, France and the United States to talk with some very thoughtful men about some very thorny issues. It’s always thoughtful men. Somehow he didn’t find any women to interview about creation, though at the end of the book he movingly describes his mother’s death. She, a believer, did not think she was passing into nothingness. Respectful, Holt has no closure on this, either.How can the “first cause” not have a cause? How can one talk about anything prior to the Big Bang, if this event created time itself? What is the role of consciousness in the universe, and how is that related to simplicity, goodness, beauty? What if our universe is just one of many, many, universes and big bangs are relatively frequent occurrences? These are the kinds of questions that drive Holt back and forth between mathematics and ethics. String theory “builds matter out of pure geometry,” while “Plato thought that the ethical requirement that a good universe exist was itself enough to createthe universe.”So why is there something rather than nothing? “There isn’t,” replies the brilliant and witty philosopher Robert Nozick. “There’s both.” Physicist Ed Tryon, on the other hand, wondered whether the universe was the product of a “quantum fluctuation,” offering “the modest proposal that our universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time.”

Periodically our despairing guide describes himself as retreating to a cafe for a strong espresso or, even better, a restaurant where he can treat body and spirit with some good food and wine. Lucky readers may find themselves taking breaks to do the same. But it’s worth getting back in the hunt for answers (or just questions) with Holt.

There are many intellectually stirring moments in the book, and I learned more than I would have thought I could about contemporary controversies in quantum mechanics and cosmology. Holt is an excellent translator of complex ideas and issues. But the highlight of his book is his description of rushing home to help his dog Renzo, who was suffering from advanced cancer. Help in this case meant holding the long-haired dachshund for 10 days, and then stroking him while a vet administered a lethal injection. Holt tells us about a mind game he plays with prime numbers to steady himself “in moments of unbearable emotion.” He used the game at the veterinarian’s office. The next day he called a physicist to talk about why the world exists.

When Holt asks why the world exists, he is also asking whether there is any point to our being here. He is struck by the extraordinary contingency of our lives and of our world, and he seeks to address that contingency with theories about the emergence of time, of causality, of something. But contingency is not erased by causal accounts; it is just described in minute detail. Holt recognizes this when the somethings he cares about disappear. His real concern isn’t creation but extinction — why somethings turn into nothings. He knows the causal explanation, but that is not answering his question. Focusing on causes can be a mind game to help us deal with “moments of unbearable emotion.”

Why do we lose those we love? Why do important parts of our world vanish? These are not questions for a detective story, existential or not. But they are the questions to which, in the end, Holt’s wonderfully ambitious book leads us.

A “Break” for Getting Work Done

Every year around this time I hear comments from parents and students about the length of winter break. Like most of our peer institutions, Wesleyan begins classes for the second semester around the time of Martin Luther King Day. This year, we start up on the Thursday following the holiday weekend. By that time, many students will be eager to be back on campus, and their parents will be more than ready to help them pack.

But for those on campus, there is anything but a “January break.” As I mentioned in a previous post, Wes athletes are already in stiff competition. On Monday, for example, swimmers were battling Hamilton in the water while the rest of us were side-stepping the melting snow outside. Over the next weeks, staff in Middletown are meeting to plan the rest of the year: developing ideas for new programs, for enhancements to the campus, and for greater efficiencies. It’s a time to make repairs and to dream big. This morning, I met with the whole crew for a second semester “kick-off,” and tomorrow I head out to maintain our fundraising momentum to support our highest priorities: financial aid and academic program endowment. It’s a privilege to ask for support knowing the dedication of the staff and faculty to providing the very best liberal arts education.

I see faculty members in the library, studios, labs and departmental offices busily trying to finish some of their research and their class preparation. Many of our professors have been at professional meetings sharing their scholarship, visiting archives, or just writing one more paper. Others are going over their syllabi to ensure that their students next semester will have access to the best work concerning whatever topic is at hand. Scott Higgins and I are scrambling to finish our Coursera classes, which launch on February 4. We are the first out of the gate in this new venture for Wesleyan. You can check out all the Wes offerings here.

So, there isn’t much of a “break” for faculty and staff at this time of year, and yet we are thinking now about new January programs that would be compelling for students. We’ll be consulting with student groups, faculty and others to figure out how to make future Januaries at Wesleyan even more lively!

 

update:

CONGRATULATIONS TO Benh Zeitlin ’04 AND THE TEAM FOR THE FOUR OSCAR NOMINATIONS FOR BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD!!

Conversations, Consultation and Feeling Thankful

This past weekend, the Board of Trustees was in town for its annual November meeting. Some trustees arrived Thursday to attend classes, and in the evening they met with a group of faculty over dinner to discuss skill building and career preparation. I had the pleasure of seeing a group of inspired students and Rinde Eckert in the Theater Department’s production of The Last Days of the Old Wild Boy. I went with Kari, who had been in conversation with Rinde about the human/animal distinction for the last several months. It was an extraordinary evening, the product of great teamwork, extensive preparation, and intense performance. I was so thankful to be there and to be part of a university where this kind of work takes place.

On Friday morning, a group of women on the faculty got together with the women on the Board of Trustees. I’m told that they had very productive conversations about the challenges facing women on our campus, and that they will continue to try to find ways to make our campus a place of true gender equality. During the day on Friday, trustees, along with faculty and student representatives to the Board, worked in committees on topics ranging from energy to the honor code, from fundraising for financial aid to the use of online courses to expand the reach of our educational mission. At the end of the afternoon, several board members met in an open meeting with a few dozen students to discuss financial aid. There were good questions raised, I thought, that clarified many of the issues we’ve been discussing since February. Over dinner that night, we celebrated newly elected trustees emeriti, and student, faculty and staff accomplishments. It was a joyful evening. Reading through the remarkable work that students were doing, I felt thankful that Wesleyan continues to attract and nurture such talent.

The Board concluded its work on Saturday, and we spent a good deal of time talking about the issues that had arisen at last week’s forum on diversity. We didn’t come up with a magical solution, but there was a commitment to continue to make our campus more inclusive. I headed to the gym with Sophie to get a little exercise, and then to watch the men’s basketball team (led by Derick Beresford ’13) win the Herb Kenny Tournament in convincing fashion. Dreisen Heath ’15 powered the women’s basketball team to a big win at St. Joseph’s tip-off tournament. The men host Williams tonight (Tuesday).

On Sunday evening, I was able to attend the first half of the African Students Association’s fall presentation. There were stirring performances of poetry, drumming, music and dance. I also learned a lot from the presentations. I left to attend the WSA meeting to go over our Board of Trustees discussions with the students gathered there for their weekly meeting. The student representatives spent hours (after I left) discussing key issues facing the university. We should all be thankful for their efforts.

My final meeting Sunday night was with more than 70 high school juniors and their alumni, staff and faculty parents, who are beginning the college search process. I could see the anxiety in some faces, and in some the hopeful anticipation of young people ready to begin a new stage in their lives. I extolled the virtues of liberal arts education today, and I emphasized that in our changing economy and culture this form of learning is more relevant than ever before. Looking around the room and thinking about my interaction with students over the last several days, I told the high school students that I hoped they would find a campus community where they were able to thrive, NOT because they were with people like themselves, but because they were in a diverse, dynamic and affectionate community from which they could learn. When they found such a community, I concluded, they would be very thankful. I know I am.

There will be plenty of work to do when we come back from break. For now, Happy Thanksgiving, Wesleyans!