Fall Plans, Hopes, Hard Work

This past weekend the Wesleyan Board of Trustees was in town for its annual retreat. The Board’s 32 members – plus representatives from students, faculty and staff – discussed two topics in particular: online education and the plans for the fundraising campaign. We spent the first hours of the retreat listening to reports from two of the top officials from the Harvard-MIT-UC Berkeley collaboration: EdX.  They described how the three universities planned to disseminate knowledge through free, open courses and through this venture to better understand online learning and its potential – an understanding they expect to inform the evolution of education on their campuses. We also heard from a partner at McKinsey and Company, who spoke with us in broader terms about the promise and the challenge of online education. He placed online education in the context of the growing demand from around the world for higher education in the United States and also of the growing demand for skilled employees likely to be needed by companies in the coming decades. He had no doubt that online education will grow exponentially to meet those demands.

During the afternoon of our retreat, Professors Michael Weir, Lisa Dierker, Manolis Kaparakis and Eric Charry introduced us to courses that use technology to teach large numbers of students. The trustees had been given homework, freeing up their “class time” for a lot more than just listening to the sage on the stage. Of course, the great majority of classes at Wesleyan are very interactive, and our trustees were reminded (by the performance of our four professors) that no matter how great the use of technology, a great teacher makes all the difference in the world. The strength of our faculty has been and will continue to be key to the power of the Wes experience in the classroom and in research collaborations.

In the second day of the retreat, we discussed plans for our fundraising efforts over the next few years. We are focused on raising endowment funds while maintaining robust annual giving each year. We have already raised over 260 million dollars, and our highest priority in this campaign is financial aid. Recent changes to our budgeting for scholarship only put more emphasis on that priority. Financial aid: Now more than ever.

After the student and faculty representatives left the Board meeting, a group of Wes undergrads concerned about our financial aid policy interrupted the session to make the point that they, too, should be part of that conversation. This interruption could be seen, I suppose, as a sort of prelude to the open forum on financial aid that Wesleying had planned with me for the following day. Monday night we did, in fact, have that conversation, and the students had many good questions about how to mount a sustainable scholarship program that preserves access, enhances diversity, and contributes to the quality of the educational experience on campus. You can watch a recording of the webcast of the hour-long conversation here.

At Wesleyan we have myriad interests and different opinions about liberal arts education now and in the future, but I’m confident that we can all agree on the importance of raising money for scholarships. Financial aid: Now more than ever!

Wesleyan Joins Coursera Partnership

Earlier today Coursera announced that Wesleyan is joining its partnership of schools offering MOOCs — massive, open, online classes that often enroll tens of thousands of people. MOOCs are not uncontroversial. Some see them as triggering watershed changes in higher ed, while others see  basic contradictions in how they work. Founded by two computer science professors at Stanford, Coursera envisions reaching millions. Co-founder Daphne Koller’s TedTalk provides a good sense of the organization’s mission.  It was launched with classes offered by professors from Stanford, Michigan, Princeton and Penn; and this summer a number of fine schools joined the partnership, among them Duke, UVA, Johns Hopkins and CalTech. This week another dozen are signing on, including Wesleyan, and we will be the first liberal arts institution to join that has an undergraduate focus.

The idea that Wesleyan will be offering free, massive online classes will strike some as paradoxical. We are a small university at which almost three quarters of the courses are taught in an interactive, seminar style. How is that related to online learning? In important respects the classes offered through Coursera are very different from the ones we teach here in Middletown. Although MOOCs start off with huge numbers of enrolled participants, a small percentage do the assignments, and an even smaller percentage finish. The retention rate at Wes, by any measure, is very high. Our residential liberal arts education depends on the ongoing interaction of students with one another and with faculty. MOOCs encourage interaction of a different sort:  through social media and chat rooms. Nonetheless, we want to understand better how students learn in these contexts, precisely because they are so different from our own. And we think it is simply a good thing to share versions of our classes with the wider world. The Wes educational experience does not scale up — but we can make available online adaptations of our classes so that those with a desire to learn have access to some of what we have to teach.

Our work with Coursera will be an experiment with online education from which we are sure to learn. The courses we are developing now are not for Wesleyan credit — they are vehicles for teaching subjects we care about to a (very) wide audience. Professors don’t grade in MOOCs, but we do create assignments that are either machine graded or peer evaluated. We’re starting off with classes in classics, economics, film, and statistics. I’m working on an online version of my interdisciplinary humanities course, The Modern and the Postmodern. Even though I’ve been teaching this class for many years, I really don’t know how this will translate to the MOOC context. That’s why it’s an experiment.

Will online teaching have an impact on our education here on campus? It already has, with several professors using either a “flipped classroom” or a “blended” approach. Of course, our students and faculty use technology every day for research and teaching, and they are connected with others around the world who share their interests and from whom they learn.

Wesleyan has long been a champion of educational innovation, and this partnership with Coursera is just the latest step in that tradition. I think it’s an exciting one. Stay tuned (or should I say, “stay connected?”).