One of the many criticisms about the current fascination with massive open online courses, or MOOC’s, is that they fail to improve on a basic pedagogical problem that many universities face: the large size of lecture classes. Indeed, MOOC’s exacerbate the problem by enrolling tens of thousands of students rather than just hundreds.
Much of that line of criticism about MOOC’s, of course, comes from professors at traditional institutions who continue to teach large lecture classes themselves. They don’t have much of a choice, they say. Universities need large intro-level lecture courses in some disciplines to subsidize smaller upper-division courses and graduate work in others.
“The reality is that English has been subsidizing chemistry as long as there has been chemistry,” says Jane Wellman, the former executive director of the Delta Cost Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Accountability.
Higher-ed economics has worked this way for decades, and we accept it as fact whenever presented with better ways to teach freshmen. The cross subsidies seem to win out every time over a better first-year experience for students because we can’t figure out a new model to finance an institution. We know that the high-impact practices that deepen learning include first-year seminars and experiences, where students can get to better know faculty members at exactly the time when students are most at risk of transferring or dropping out.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
A few weeks ago, at a conference on the future of higher education held at George Mason University, the topic of large introductory courses came up several times during a panel discussion on how to engage students and strengthen learning. As one audience member described a stimulating capstone experience for seniors, one of the panelists, Mills Kelly, asked why the university makes them wait four years to get it. Why can’t large universities provide similar small-group learning experiences for freshmen?, asked Kelly, who is director of the global-affairs program and a history professor at George Mason.