What does the college of the future look like?

William Holt
William Holt

With steep tuition making higher education unaffordable for many families, colleges and universities are being pressed to embrace innovative learning tools that can make earning a degree far cheaper. While a four-year bachelor’s degree is still considered an essential ticket into a competitive job market, experts agree that colleges have little choice but to adapt to changing technological and economic realities.

For some colleges, the future includes massive open online courses (MOOCs) that can free up students struggling to balance academics with work and also reach an exponentially greater number of learners. Other institutions reject the digital approach altogether, stressing hands-on experience over more theoretical coursework.

There’s no real suggestion that either online or experiential learning should completely replace the brick-and-mortar campus experience, which still provides students important opportunities for socialization and collaboration. The goal, experts say, is for colleges to blend crucial elements of the campus experience with new approaches, striving to capture the best of both worlds for students increasingly priced out by the cost of a traditional four-year degree.

In March, Britain’s Institute for Public Policy Research released a paper on the challenges facing the modern university titled “An Avalanche Is Coming.” The foreboding title sent a blunt message to traditional academic institutions: Move quickly to embrace new technologies, or prepare to become obsolete.

“Our belief is that deep, radical and urgent transformation is required as much as it is in school systems,” the authors wrote. “Our fear is that, perhaps as a result of complacency, caution or anxiety, or a combination of all three, the pace of change is too slow and the nature of change too incremental.”

To meet such warnings head-on, an increasing number of high-profile colleges and universities now offer their most popular classes as MOOCs.

The world’s leading provider of MOOCs is Coursera, founded in 2012 by Stanford University computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. Claiming more than 4 million users since its inception, Coursera offers more than 400 courses from 84 partners, including five Ivy League universities and some of America’s top state schools.

Ng said the idea for Coursera originated in 2008, when he started posting videos of his computer science lectures on the Internet.

“I was surprised when total strangers told me they had seen me on YouTube,” he said. “I realized there was something here that was having an impact on people — and could have an impact on 100,000 people.”

After teaming up with Koller, Ng developed the basic format to include several innovations that have allowed Coursera to expand its course offerings to a wide variety of subjects.

“The classroom will be a place to come for tutorials and one-on-one instruction rather than a place to be lectured at by a professor,” Ng said. “You’d be responsible for watching the videos at home and doing the online quizzes. The classroom time can be used for students to practice with the material.”

MOOCs offer college students several cost-saving advantages.

Students can watch lectures on their own time rather than attend a class that meets at a specific time and day. The flexibility allows them to build schedules that can more easily combine schoolwork with jobs or family obligations.

Students can also take MOOCs over a summer, racking up enough credits to cut down the number of years or semesters they need to stay in — and pay for — college.

While Ng said he’s not blind to the inherent limitations of large-scale online courses, he’s still enthusiastic about the potential for MOOCs to redefine the landscape of higher education.

“What we cannot do with a MOOC is deliver one-on-one tutorials,” he said. “But we can deliver great content online.”

Ng said he sees the role of the traditional university classroom evolving over time, with a greater emphasis placed on content mastery than content delivery — “less professor-centric, more student-centric,” he explained.

Still, many colleges have had trouble implementing online programs as a central component of the educational experience.

In January, San Jose State University announced that it would provide for-credit online courses for a modest fee through a deal with the startup Udacity. Several months later, Inside Higher Ed reported that the institution had suspended the partnership after failure rates for the five classes offered ranged from 56 to 76 percent.

There’s also the worry that MOOCs could make smaller, less prestigious institutions dependent on the Harvard professors of the world — or even put such schools out of business altogether. A growing demand for big-name lecturers through cheap online courses could diminish wages and job security for less established instructors across the country. Why pay top dollar to attend a second-tier institution, the thinking goes, when you can watch a Nobel laureate on your laptop?

As MOOCs allow anyone to access lectures from top-notch professors, some smaller schools are trying to make themselves irreplaceable by moving away from the lecture model altogether. These schools are offering hands-on, practical learning that they say you can’t get from watching an online lecture and taking a multiple-choice test.

At Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., experience is everything. Founded in 1999 with a grant from the F.W. Olin Foundation, the college has sought to differentiate itself from other engineering schools by recruiting 30 students out of high school to spend a year working with newly hired faculty and testing out ideas for the curriculum.

“The foundation felt that engineering education needed an overhaul,” said Joe Hunter, the college’s director of communications. “The charge from the very start was to do engineering education in a different way.”

That meant partnering with nearby institutions to offer an engineering curriculum that fostered not just technical mastery but also creativity and entrepreneurship. Olin also collaborates with Babson College and Wellesley College to provide its students with coursework in business and the liberal arts.

“One of the problems is that higher education has become very siloed,” said Hunter. “We came up with this curriculum that combines these three areas: You have the technical education of an engineer along with entrepreneurship on the one hand and liberal arts on the other.”

Olin also removed traditional departmental distinctions in an effort to encourage collaboration among fields. While the school maintains disciplinary groupings of faculty to help students achieve accredited degrees, there is no mechanical engineering department or electrical engineering department.

“We decided that it was important that students start doing actual engineering projects as soon as possible,” Hunter said. “When you get out in the real world, projects aren’t going to have neat little labels on them that say, ‘This is a math problem’ or ‘This is a physics problem.’”

Another unique feature of the college is its Olin Scholarship, a half-tuition reward given to every student upon matriculation.

“Engineering talent isn’t just concentrated among affluent people,” said Hunter. “If somebody has what it takes to succeed at Olin academically, we didn’t want their financial status to get in the way.”

In 2009, the Princeton Review named Olin to its list of the nation’s 50 “best value” colleges, suggesting that it “may well be the most dynamic undergraduate institution in the country.”

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