From the President

New, and Powerful, Possibilities

By James Wagner, President, Emory University

Portrait of President James W. Wagner on the campus of Emory University

President James Garfield reportedly once defined a university as “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” Hopkins, the longtime president of Williams College in the nineteenth century, was the quintessential old-style college president, whose duties left time for teaching moral philosophy, and whose impact on students was much like that of a religious master on his disciples.

This image of professor and student in close, personalized conversation offers a stark contrast to the MOOCs that figure in so many conversations about higher education. These “massive open online courses” enroll tens of thousands of students at a time. That’s a big log. And in those circumstances it would take someone with even greater intellectual charisma than Mark Hopkins to pull off that old style of teaching.

Likewise, the modern university engages in such a dizzying range of activities that it can be confusing trying to figure out just where on the log a student should sit. The whole enterprise sometimes seems as vast and potentially impersonal as a MOOC, even before you mix in the online technology.

For these two reasons—new online tools for teaching, and the scope of the university—I actually am rather excited about MOOCs. They have the potential to recreate, in a sense, that moment of enlightening exchange between Mark Hopkins and his student. Consider just one scenario.

Emory Professor of Music Steve Everett taught one of the three courses offered by Emory this past spring through our partnership with Coursera. His course on digital music composition enrolled some forty-five thousand men and women from around the world. It’s a course he has taught often on Emory’s campus, but its technical nature and space constraints (use of audio equipment and a computer lab, for instance) have limited enrollment each time to fewer than twenty students, always leaving another twenty or more waiting until next time.

But this time, Professor Everett had the opportunity to run an interesting experiment. Some of his students on campus enrolled in the Coursera version simultaneously with the on-campus version, while others took only the on-campus version. As he taught the course, he recognized that the on-campus students—especially those enrolled in the online version—had a richer learning experience than they would have had without forty-five thousand additional classmates, and a richer experience than that of any previous Emory students in the course.

Why? Because the Emory students not only could pose questions to the professor face-to-face (which the online students could not do), but also benefited from online chats with the forty-five thousand other students, not just those on campus. Many of those forty-five thousand were professionals whose fields draw on the subject matter, and who were taking the course because it added to their expertise, enhanced their skills, and broadened their base of knowledge.

In every course, a professor inevitably hears a question he or she has never thought about before. This time around, instead of saying, “Let me get back to you next class meeting,” the professor knew that the question would likely be answered within hours by one of those professionals taking the course. In the words of Professor Everett, “It’s like having two thousand teaching assistants.”

In other cases when an in-class student would bring a question to class from his or her on-line chats, Professor Everett would find himself wondering, Where did that question come from? A bass player in Vienna? A sound technician in Buenos Aires? An audio engineer in Sydney? The possibilities were dazzling.

To return to Mark Hopkins: if a MOOC dramatically balloons the size of the student on one end of the log (multiplying her by forty-five thousand!), it also has the capacity, when prepared thoughtfully and managed well, to expand the effectiveness of the teacher on the other end of the log and the learning experience of everyone.

What this suggests is that Emory and other institutions collaborating with Coursera (and 2U, our “semester online” program) may be approaching the MOOC conundrum the right way. It is possible to make use of online power for sharing information, while preserving the advantages of that log that President Garfield referred to—that not-indispensable but certainly irreplaceable spark of personal relationship between teacher and student. MOOCs and the residential college experience are not mutually exclusive. They can, in fact, complement each other in astonishing ways that we are just beginning to explore. I find this prospect immensely appealing.

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