Wednesday, December 12, 2012

MOOCS and the Land Grant Mission

MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses—have captured the imagination of many in higher education since several leading research universities began to offer their large lecture courses in this format.   At the most basic level, these courses enhance the lecture hall, providing video lectures with opportunities for interaction among students and between students and instructors.   In the process, they maintain the old notion that education is about knowledge transfer.  However, perhaps it is best to see these early MOOCs as just that:  early innovations with a new generation of online learning.

In the November 29, 2012 issue of Inside Higher Education, W. Joseph King and Michael Nanfito of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, make that case.  “The MOOC,” they write, “. . . is essential a high-tech extension of the traditional industrial age university lecture-hall experience.”  However, they add that one can look beyond MOOCs as a simple delivery mechanism and see its potential as a “connectivist” tool that gives institutions the ability to integrate four functions:

1.            Aggregation, allowing students to bring together different sources of knowledge provided within the course as well as beyond the course.

2.            Remixing information and ideas by communicating with peers about what they are learning.

3.            Repurposing information to create new knowledge.

4.            Feeding forward their learning by applying it to new situations and publishing the results.

“The key here,” they write, “is thinking of the MOOC not in the standard way, as asynchronous video lectures and course readings, but in the connectivist way . . . to provide participatory space.”

Embedding MOOCs in the Land Grant Mission

I would add that another key to ultimate success with this new model is to base it firmly in the institution’s mission.   Some of us can remember how, at the beginning of the online learning revolution, Fathom—a project that involved some of the same institutions as are now innovating with MOOCs—failed because the initiative simply was not within the institution’s core mission and culture.   Today, I would argue that institutions should not simply emulate what Harvard and others are doing with MOOCs but ask how this new generation of online learning can best extend their own missions. 

I have spent my entire career—from student to administrator—in land grant universities.  There are several ways that MOOCs can advance the land grant mission at a time when that mission is being challenged by radical changes in the society it serves.  Here are a few:

Revitalizing General Education – Like the big private research universities, our land grant universities offer large lecture sections for many of its general education courses.  Obviously, MOOCs have the potential to make these courses more engaging and relevant.  However, they also hold potential for transforming general education from a discipline-based distribution curriculum to a more comprehensive interdisciplinary curriculum by providing a “participatory space” where faculty from multiple disciplines can share ideas around common themes and encourage students to create new knowledge to address major societal problems.  When I was an undergraduate at Penn State in the 1960s, the general education curriculum included interdisciplinary core courses in the humanities, social sciences, biological sciences, and physical sciences, as well as innovative Science, Technology, and Society courses that focused on the interaction of disciplines around major social issues.  MOOCs could support this approach at scale for large, multi-campus institutions like Penn State and other land grants.

Extending the Impact of Research and Technology Transfer --  MOOCs offer a particularly powerful way for research faculty to connect with the communities that can most benefit from applying their research.  Imagine videos or other media that present the results of research, combined with the ability for individuals in the community (whether it be industry, business, government policy makers, other educational sectors, health care, etc.) to explore the impact on their own practices and to share ideas among each other as well as with the faculty researchers in order to identify new practices that effectively build on new research. 

Re-Imagining Cooperative Extension – Cooperative Extension was created during the Industrial Revolution to ensure that American agriculture would keep pace with industrialization and urbanization.  The idea was to distribute expertise to the county level, so that academic specialists could work directly with farmers in their fields.  Cooperative Extension remains essential to quickly translating agriculture and environmental research into effective practice.  MOOCs could greatly facilitate the university’s ability to bring practice communities around agricultural research and issues (new strands of plant and animal diseases, the impact of climate change, etc.) to greatly enhance the ability of agriculture and environmental resource professionals to respond to new needs.

Continuing Education and Outreach – Just as MOOCs offer new opportunities to create change communities around agriculture and technology transfer, they can be used to better empower relationships with other community stakeholders normally managed through the university’s continuing education or outreach function.  Examples:  small business development centers, urban renewal centers, teacher in-service programs, etc.  One of the great advantages of MOOCs in this environment is that geography is no longer a restraint; these online programs can create communities of people who share common problems or common environments, even though they are separated by geography, government boundaries, etc.

Institutional Collaboration – Our land grant universities have already shown great willingness to work with each other across state boundaries to improve the resources available to their in-state clientele.  A good early example is the American Distance Education Consortium, which encourages sharing of Extension resources across states.  Similarly, the CIC’s CourseShare initiative is using online learning to aggregate student audiences for courses in rarely taught languages and other specialties, while the Great Plains Inter-institutional Distance Education Alliance (IDEA) allows large state universities in the Midwest to offer graduate programs that share expertise from multiples institution.  MOOCs can be used to enhance these relationships and build new ones where two or more institutions share a commitment to a distributed clientele.

In the long run, the initial use of MOOCs to open access to large lecture courses may or may not transform undergraduate education.  However, it is clear that this new generation of online learning has the potential to help transform our institutions to meet the needs of individuals and communities in the new knowledge economy.


King, W. Joseph, and Nanfito, Michael.  “To MOOC or Not To MOOC?”  Inside Higher Education, November 29, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Gary...
    Great piece. We're discussing similar issues here at Oregon State.
    Dave King