Faculty-Staff Learning Community: Online at Oberlin

Executive Summary

Oberlin must address the issues raised by technology advances which now allow the potential of delivering educational content outside the traditional classroom setting in a sophisticated, and, at times, compelling fashion. The education press is expending an extraordinary amount of energy covering the “on­line revolution,” particularly the “MOOC” (Massive Open On­Line Courses) phenomenon, and administrators, education writers, faculty, and course developers are all considering the “disruptive” impact of technology on higher education.

Some recent polling suggests areas that Oberlin should consider. A poll by the Chronicle of Higher Education surveyed nearly 1,200 faculty members at four­-year colleges (October 4, 2013), finding that only 8% felt that MOOCS will have a positive impact on American higher education (65% thought it would have a negative impact), while 60% of faculty felt that hybrid courses (see below for definition) would have a positive impact (with only 11% suggesting  a negative impact). An October 2013 Gallup poll equally favored four­year colleges and universities above on­line education (Chronicle of Higher Education, October 15, 2013).

It is within this broad context that a Faculty/Staff Learning Community (FSLC) took the opportunity to examine the impact of on­line learning for Oberlin College, understanding that we are and will remain a residential liberal arts college where face­-to­-face (F2F) teaching and learning is at the heart of what we do and one of the traditional primary drivers of on­line learning, distance education, plays no role.

Our questions:

  • Are there aspects of on­line technology that would be beneficial to student learning and faculty teaching?
  • What does the research show regarding the educational benefits of on­line learning?
  • Can students transfer credits earned through MOOCs (or other on­line courses) into Oberlin?
  • Will Oberlin support the development of on­line content to be used in conjunction with F2F courses?
  • Understanding that faculty have control over their own courses, should the College encourage faculty (through workshops, financial incentives, release time, etc.) to adopt on­line content if the research suggests a positive impact that it can have on student learning?
  • Can on­line learning possibilities allow Oberlin to partner with other institutions to offer educational content which we currently don’t (can’t) offer, or educational enrichments through collaborations, which we currently don’t?

Our conclusions (at this point):

  • Given the current intense discussions which are about the location of learning (on­line or in­-class), the educational community often ignores the most important issue: how learning occurs. We have come to understand this issue much more clearly after decades of cognitive and neuroscientific research which has been reported in a scientific manner. To state the conclusion: certain pedagogical approaches and practices bolster student learning, and others don’t. This is the case whether those approaches take place on­line or in classrooms. Understanding this, our strongest conclusion is that student learning outcomes must drive our educational decisions.
  • There is a significant body of research on teaching and learning that demonstrates that students learn best (i.e., retain more information, become more adaptable thinkers, understand concepts better, apply concepts to new circumstances, etc.) in active contexts (when they construct their own knowledge via discussion, application, and experimentation, in other words, by doing rather than by listening) rather than in a traditional lecture format (when the teacher lectures and the students take notes).  The great majority of MOOCs recreate the worst of the world of passive content delivery. Moving a passive lecture­-centered approach on­line will not increase student learning outcomes. At the same time, we would argue that if a passive approach is standard inside the class, students will be losing out on the potential of on­site, face­-to­-face instruction. Universities can save money by moving content on­line without regard for student learning, they can fire faculty and close facilities, but this will come at a significant cost to student learning.
  • We support positive incentives to explore how technology can allow more active learning, including shifting content delivery on­line and outside of the class. We do support the extension of opportunities through hybrid options that allow faculty to take the greatest advantage of the contact hours with students that we have.
  • To the extent that Oberlin already has policies governing the transfer of credits from accredited institutions of higher education, those policies would cover credits earned under a MOOC or other on­line formats, as long as they appear on the transcript of an accredited institution.
  • We would not recommend that Oberlin join a MOOC consortium, either in the context of producing content for delivery via a MOOC or in the context of gaining access to MOOC content which might not be otherwise available to our students.
  • There is some emerging research on the potential of on­line content delivery in some specific “remedial” areas, such as math, that we should explore.
  • We would recommend investigating potential collaborations via on­line mechanisms with other colleges and universities both to provide opportunities for our students not currently supported and to deepen some existing work.
  • While many universities (and a few colleges) are exploring on­line content delivery as a cost­-saving measure, our own investigations have suggested that high­-quality content preparation will be costly, particularly in terms of staff time devoted to the technological side. The business models of MOOCs remain untested and problematic.


The Report

The General Environment

We are living through the MOOC revolution, or so we are being told. MOOCs (Massive Open On­line Courses), with their capacity to present content to literally anyone with a computer and a good broadband connection, promise to “disrupt” educational delivery much as the digital technology has disrupted other information­centered industries (e.g. journalism).  While content delivery has long been available in extra­classroom settings (e.g. “Sunrise Semester” on TV from the 1950s), the pace of change and the pressure to change higher education content delivery has increased rapidly in the last decade.

And yet, according to a recent report, nearly 75% of college and university trustees believe that on­line learning will be “important” or “essential” to their institutions in the next five years, but only about 20% say that their boards are prepared to make decisions about educational technology on their campuses. More information and discussion is clearly warranted.

Some definitions within the MOOC world:

Those who study the development of MOOCs distinguish between cMOOCs (for connectivist) which were highly social with lots of interaction, and xMOOCs, which are larger in scale and more “push” oriented, where instructors (Sebastian Thrun of Stanford being the first) put up a lot of content and grading is usually by machine. MIT only recently (September 27, 2013) announced that it will use its nonprofit edX platform to offer not just single courses on line, but a sequence of courses, which it will call XSeries.

As will be explained below, there are other ways to leverage the digital delivery world without going the MOOC route, specifically “hybrid” possibilities which pair off­site digital content with F2F instruction.

Why the push to MOOCs?:

There are a number of reasons why MOOC development took off when it did: (1) technological developments, particularly the ability to reach massive numbers of “students” at the same time; (2) the pressures to contain costs in higher education, and (3) dissatisfaction with K­12 and/or higher education outcomes (although what this means will vary by audience.) In relation to this third point in particular, on­going research is attempting to determine whether new delivery methods are actually increasing student learning (retention of information, understanding of concepts, adaptability of learning, speed of learning, etc.). In some cases the answer is yes. For example, often cited statistics courses prepared by Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, demonstrate that statistics students in hybrid settings  (with only one hour of class time per week) learned faster than in­ person (F2F) classes.  (See “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials” ). We’ll have more on this in a later section.

Other studies, such as Cathy Davidson’s “What Can MOOCs Teach Us About Learning?” argue in favor of the huge potential of massive on­line learning courses to “to teach hundreds of thousands of people around the world who would not otherwise have any chance of an access to the kinds of specialized subjects offered by higher education.” But they also recognize that most course developers (faculty, digital content providers, etc.) who are creating content in on­line settings through MOOC consortia (Coursera , Udacity, EduX, 2U, Open Learning Initiative, etc.) are doing nothing more than re­creating the worst aspects of stand­up lecturing, which the research has time and again suggested in not a good approach to student learning.

(For one response to Davidson see: “A MOOC Delusion: Why Visions to Educate the World are Absurd,” Chronicle of Higher Education (July 15, 2013).

It is in recognition of this point that two psychology professors at Texas­-Austin are offering for the first time this semester what they call a “SMOC” (Synchronous Massive Online Course), in which they plan to broadcast their lectures live to about 1,500 enrolled students (and up to 10,000). The course will cost $550, and will earn students 3 (transferable) credits if they complete it. But, as they point out, in order to adequately prepare and produce for such a large class, they estimate that 125 people will be involved in the teaching of a single class (between faculty, audiovisual professionals, online mentors, programmers, etc.). As this might indicate, and as many have argued, the business model for MOOCs (or any massive online course) is not at all clear, although venture capital continues to fertilize the project. To some extent, as with many business models, profitability will come through extension of the market (if it comes at all), but not only is this highly problematic from a philosophical perspective (which we won’t discuss here), but the up­front costs, as the SMOC example demonstrates, makes it extremely unattractive for a place like Oberlin.

Some MOOC creators, such as Mitchell Duneier, a sociology professor at Princeton who taught a “highly successful” introductory sociology course via Coursera last year, has stopped teaching it, arguing, “I think it’s an excuse for state legislatures to cut funding to state universities.”  (We should point out that what “success” means in a MOOC setting is not always specified, although it usually means that testing results were higher in on­line than in F2F courses; sometimes it means that a higher percentage of the class passed the course, or finished the course; sometimes it just means enrollment numbers.)

This same worry is expressed by Aaron Bady, who argues that a process initiated by faculty seriously interested in offering course material for free to “the world” (i.e., anyone with access to a computer and broadband), will inevitably be colonized by a “process driven from the top down, imposed on faculty by university administrators, or even imposed on administrators by university boards of trustees and regents. We only need to think of the events involving the attempted ouster of the president of the University of Virginia in 2012 in this regard.

The most highly publicized MOOC­revolt was led by the Philosophy Department at San Jose State. The faculty there argued that “…we believe that having a scholar teach and engage with his or her own students is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her students.”

Even Sebastian Thrun, one of the early developers of MOOCs and founder of Udacity, recently observed that, “A medium where only self­-motivated, Web­-savvy people sign up, and the success rate is 10 percent, doesn’t strike me quite yet as a solution to the problems of higher education.”

What does this mean at Oberlin?

In the first place, and repeating, we need to recognize that we are living in an extremely fluid environment in which colleges and universities are adopting MOOCs (either as providers of content via their faculty, or as recipients of content by their students), deciding explicitly against MOOCs, moving to develop hybrid solutions, or temporizing. Brown and Yale are examples of the first; Amherst the second; many colleges select the third route. At the moment, Oberlin seems to be in the latter category although faculty on their own initiative are moving consistently toward hybrid approaches.

Accepting MOOC credits

To date, a relatively small number of universities are accepting MOOCs for regular semester credits. Southern Methodist, Baylor and Temple all recently announced that they will allow students to take fully on­line courses for credit during the semester even though the courses are being offered by 2U’s Semester Online program.  In terms of Oberlin’s policy regarding accepting MOOC credits, the new rules governing transfer of credit provide an adequate framework for addressing this issue, although, if we were to develop a consortial approach in currently unsupported curricular areas, we might need to reexamine this question.

At the current time we have (new) limits on the number of credits that can be brought to Oberlin or earned elsewhere and applied to an Oberlin degree; to the extent that MOOCs are not producing “free­standing” credits, but are only validated by accredited institutions of higher education, Oberlin would have to accept credits generated by a MOOC when delivered on a, say, Temple University transcript. So we need spend little time with this issue.

Going the MOOC route (in terms of joining a MOOC consortium)

To the extent that MOOCs are untested as a business model, produce phenomenally high drop­out and failure rates, and are better suited for distance education as opposed to residential settings, the “standard” MOOC route or rationale is not for us.

The question of whether the college should support (financially or by release time) faculty who want to develop MOOCs for external providers is a question of purpose and resources. To the extent that our educational outcomes will be served by helping faculty move content delivery outside of class in order to better use their own in­-class time, we think Oberlin should provide resources to support that. To the extent that faculty want to develop on­line courses specifically to inhabit the MOOC world (i.e., courses that are noted for very high production values), we think that is beyond our resource capability. Faculty in those circumstances should look for support for such projects from the MOOC providers themselves.

Hybrid/Blended Approaches

There are a few models for leveraging on­line learning that could prove more attractive and well suited to Oberlin’s residential liberal arts model and so should be examined with interest and deliberation. The first of these models is the hybrid (often called “blended learning”) model. When discussing hybrid educational models, we should note that they run the gamut from more “traditional” blended learning approaches in which what is essentially an on­line class also includes a very few F2F meetings. We don’t think this model offers us many advantages.

Other hybrid approaches (characteristic of large state systems), use on­line delivery as a kind of textbook to supplement or compliment in­-class instruction. (Ray Rivard, “State Systems Go MOOC”.) The success of the MOOC­-as­-textbook model likely relates directly to the business model of the MOOC. Textbooks, many of which already carry a lot of on­line content associated with the purchase of the (very expensive) print book, update regularly. Authors, who can derive a fair amount of income with a successful textbook, will devote time and energy to the revisions. If MOOCs take a lot of time to produce and are not generating much revenue (because they are largely free), it is not clear that authors of MOOC content will be eager to update on a regular basis. Thus, the business model that drives continual updating in print/on­line models is not present in purely on­line models.

What we have in mind here when we speak of “hybrid” approaches is using on­line content delivery or other learning opportunities to support regular F2F classes, particularly in terms of what is called “flipping” classes (recording or using already prepared video/audio instruction as a means of moving content delivery outside of class hours). UC–Berkeley professor Armando Fox calls the flipped classes SPOCs—“small private online classes.” EdX (Harvard and MIT’s non­profit venture) is spending time developing these, which – probably because they don’t have to cater to the needs of venture capitalists – can pay more attention to what faculty and students think of as significant learning. A fine argument that on­line content should make F2F classes better rather than replacing them altogether can be found in a recent (Sept. 18, 2013) post by Will Oremus on Slate. As Oremus writes, “The basic idea is to use MOOC­-style video lectures and other online features as course materials in actual, normal-­size college classes. By assigning the lectures as homework, the instructors are free to spend the actual class period answering students’ questions, gauging what they have and haven’t absorbed, and then working with them on projects and assignments. In some cases the instructors also use some MOOC­-style online assessments or even automated grading features. But in general they’re free to tailor the curriculum, pace, and grading system to their own liking and their own students’ needs.”

Other hybrid models (supplementing F2F activities with on­line content, activities, engagement, etc.) are already in wide use at Oberlin. It is important to survey the faculty in order to determine exactly how widely faculty engage these practices and which practices are being used the most. Some faculty have moved the great majority of content delivery outside the class via recorded lectures. A much larger number, perhaps a majority of faculty, use on­line wikis, blogs, or other approaches to scaffold student learning in their courses.  We should understand that all of these practices can be considered hybrid learning approaches.

The heart of the “SPOC” (Small Private Online Classes) argument, and in all hybrid uses of technology, is based in learning theory rather than cost saving considerations (although, to be clear, we have no objections to finding ways to save costs as long as they don’t come at the expense of student learning). Following both constructivist and constructionist approaches, the move to shift content­ delivery outside of the class is determined by evidence­-based approaches that show that students learn best (both in terms of remembering and in terms of applying what they have learned) when they construct their own knowledge via discussion, application, experimentation, in other words, by doing rather than by listening.

This is an argument that Oberlin would do well to encourage and support through directed funding, expanded workshops, and release­ time support.  Whether the on­line content of any particular course is developed in­-house or elsewhere (purchased, rented, free content, etc.) is a different sort of question, and one that should be pursued.

It is also useful to examine how other colleges have used the cMOOC (“connectivist” MOOC) model as a means of connecting students in a number of colleges, allowing them to learn from others vs just following a single strand, teacher centric learning MOOC model. The University of Mary Washington is a leader in this field, particularly their ds106 course, a digital storytelling course begun by Jim Groom. It’s noteworthy because it fosters learning in a way that can only happen in that “other” or “third space.” Participants learn from one another and teach one another vs. just from one source or voice managing the curriculum.

Finally, we think it is important to follow two particular lines of thinking in Oberlin’s move to support more hybrid­ teaching models.

(1) Given the existence of a few well­-tested on­line courses (and here we reference again the statistics lectures available through Carnegie Mellon), one question we still need to address is what are the benefits to Oberlin of having a larger number of students than we would normally teach access these on­line lectures, and then offer fewer in­-class, F2F, meetings with each of a number of sections that compose the larger class. Can this be a way of using instructional time in a manner that both supports student learning and can allow the instructor to teach more students? This is a question which remains to be answered, but we can say at the moment that very few on­line courses have been as thoroughly examined as Carnegie Mellon’s statistics course, and we would have to conduct a thorough evaluation of the learning consequences for our own students in such a model.

(2) While we firmly oppose any policy which sees entry­-level courses as prime targets for a shift to on­line providers (largely because we see those courses as essential for bringing students into a subject, something that can best be done F2F), given the likelihood that our faculty:student ratio will not be improving, it might be possible for individual faculty to “pay” for smaller classes at the intermediate and advanced level, by teaching larger classes in the intro or intermediate level with a judicious and informed use of on­line content. The key here is developing the ability to use interactive approaches even for large classes. Eric Mazur of Harvard’s Physics Department is a master at this.

(3) The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and NovoEd, a Stanford University spin­off, have expanded their distribution of on­line learning in the area of remedial math. Their studies have suggested some potential in this area.

Pooling Resources

The second on­line development concerns using technology to pool resources. Wake Forest recently joined such a consortium which, in this case, included the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Northwestern and Notre Dame (but was rejected by Duke). (“Wake Forest Joins Course Pooling Consortium.”

One excellent example of resource pooling is “Sunoikisis,” a national consortium of Classics programs which originated in the Association of Southern Colleges. [The name, if you’re interested – and how could you not be? – refers to the alliance formed by the cities of Lesbos (Methymna excluded) in their revolt against the Athenian empire.] Sunoikisis has since become a program of NITLE (National Institute of Technology and Liberal Education) and is sponsored by the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC. It “enables students and faculty at participating institutions to benefit from opportunities normally available only at large research institutions, while maintaining the advantages of a small liberal arts learning environment. The Sunoikisis collaborative includes inter­-institutional collaborative courses, excavations, internships, travel study, undergraduate research symposia, and faculty development seminars,” among other things.

While there are certain advantages of local/regional resource pooling (e.g. in our case through Ohio 5 schools or others), since face­-to­-face meetings are more likely, technology, of course, means that your partners don’t have to be next­ door. It would be highly useful to bring some of the faculty involved in the formation of Sunoikisis or involved in the project but located at NITLE to campus for discussions.

As with all of these arguments, the most important issue for our consideration is student learning. We are not in support of reducing or replacing faculty currently teaching on campus in favor of consortial contexts, but we are interested in exploring how we can offer new curriculum (if the appropriate committees consider them important) in a shared, on­line setting.


While Oberlin has been engaging in the on­line discussion for some time, and individual instructors have been moving consistently towards adopting more on­line content and activities in their teaching, we haven’t had a community­-wide discussion on this issue. Indeed, this FSLC was formed to further that discussion. While faculty will continue to be in charge of their own pedagogical approaches (which we support), further discussion of the research on learning theory and what this means for our pedagogy is quite important. The essential question, we can conclude, is not necessarily where content comes from but how we are making best use of the contact hours we have with our students. This conversation has changed because the on­line environment now offers consistent possibilities of excellent content or activities which can help some faculty rethink their own teaching strategies.

Learning has to drive of all our decisions on the adoption of different content delivery approaches, and we must understanding that what we provide to students while they are at Oberlin is an education, not just course content. What remains at the heart of the educational process is the kind of engagement that can only be fostered by intense and productive interactions between faculty and students, students and students, staff and students, and within the community as a whole.


Oberlin should:

  • Offer release time for those who create digital content for their courses.
  • Bolster technical support for those who want to create digital content. We would recommend hiring 1­-2 instructional technologists dedicated to helping faculty develop and use on­line resources in conjunction with their F2F classes.
  • More closely coordinate the recently announced Mellon Grant in Digital Scholarship given to the Ohio 5 colleges with the development of on­line teaching (not just research) resources.
  • Actively consider making funds available for purchasing high­-quality on­line content, as long as that process is closely vetted by the faculty making course decisions.
  • Explore further the option of using a few well researched on­line courses to provide the main content delivery for an Oberlin class in conjunction with developing a classroom model for using that content in a productive manner with in­-class meetings.
  • Explore further the possibility of consortial learning opportunities by bringing faculty involved in the Sunoikisis project or NITLE to campus for discussions.
  • Not favor reducing or replacing faculty currently teaching on campus by an on­line curriculum delivered through a consortial setting, but we are interested in exploring how we can offer new curriculum (if appropriate) in a shared, on­line setting.
  • Not provide resources to help faculty develop MOOCs (i.e. courses, with very high production values).

Faculty/Staff Learning Community on On­Line Learning at Oberlin

Albert Borroni (OCTET)

Nancy Darling (Psychology)

Wendy Beth Hyman (English)

Megan Mitchell (Mudd Library)

Pete Naegele (Psychology)

Michael Roest (Ensemble Librarian, Manager at Conservatory)

Barbara Sawhill (Cooper International Learning Center, Hispanic Studies)

Peter Swendsen (TIMARA, Conservatory)

Steven Volk (History and CTIE)

November 2013

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