With more than 3,000 students, Connecticut’s Wesleyan University is not your typical liberal arts college. Its larger size allows for research institution-level courses, where students work directly with high profile scholars, while the intimacy of a liberal arts college is preserved. But, as President Michael Roth says, there was still a desire to “expand the university without creating brick-and-mortar campuses.” Online education seemed to be the answer, but how to do it remained the question.
Driven by Roth’s efforts, Wesleyan partnered with Coursera earlier this year, and Roth himself became one of the first instructors to participate. He spoke to UB about how his teaching has been enhanced by his online experience, and why he believes a liberal arts education is so important.
How did your involvement in MOOCs come about?
I thought we’d start our own small-scale pilot experiment, probably off-campus, offering classes through some of our faculty and alumni. If we could do it well, we’d expand it. Then I read about Coursera, which had attracted many students and had a really interesting group of original partners. I realized they had experience and data we couldn’t get if we just worked on our own.
I spoke to Coursera founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, and suggested they should partner with some schools that are focused on undergraduate education and teaching, and not just research universities. They agreed to take on Wesleyan with one requirement. Daphne said, “We have no phantom partners. If you sign up, you have to give a couple of classes.”
I teach a class at Wesleyan, about 100 students, so I thought that might be a good one to try in the context of a MOOC. I really didn’t know at that point if other faculty would be interested.
Was it difficult getting buy-in?
I spoke with the chair of the board, the chair of the faculty and, of course, university counsel for contractual purposes. But this was only to tell them what we planned to do. As this would be an experiment outside of our own curriculum, I did not seek faculty approval. I would consult with them as we got into it to get their reactions about the work we were doing.
My plan was to solicit faculty volunteers who might be interested in this experiment. I emphasize that because some other schools turn to the faculty as a corporate body to see if they should engage in new modes of teaching. We don’t do that normally. If we want to add an experimental form of pedagogy, we don’t ask the whole faculty to vote on it.
I met with all our faculty teaching large classes to see if they wanted to try online versions of their courses. In the end, I got six people who wanted to participate in this experiment in statistics, psychology, classics, economics, film, and, in my case, intellectual history. If we could get in front of tens of thousands of students, especially internationally, it would be a real advantage for Wesleyan, and it has proven more successful than I imagined.
From your perspective as both the president of the institution and as an instructor, what were the top-level lessons you learned?
First, the emphasis is not on size. In my case, almost 30,000 people signed up for the course. But just about half of the people who sign up for a course will actually start it. And only a relatively small percentage will finish the course.
Instead, what I found exciting was the ability for a humanities course to reach a great variety of people of all ages and national cultures. The way we teach these things in a liberal arts context actually resonates with thousands of students. That demand for an American-style class in a variety of fields is extremely strong.
Second, students respond to sincerity and enthusiasm in teaching online as they do in the classroom. Some schools add lots of bells and whistles, but one of our most successful classes was in film studies, where the professor gave his lectures sitting at his laptop and talking to the camera. He communicates effectively and is sincere about the material he is teaching, and about helping the students understand it better.
Another observation is that the networks of communication among students are pretty strong. They self-organize into smaller groups. On the first day in my class there was a Bulgarian study group, a Greek study group, a group of students in Maine, Spanish-speaking students, Portuguese-speaking students—even a Russian language thread. I sometimes respond to their conversations in the languages I can understand. A small response from the instructor can be a helpful way of either instigating a conversation or subtly redirecting it.
Should a class developed at Wesleyan or Harvard be used at another school?
It’s happening now. I predict that professors will use recorded lectures or class materials from MOOCs the same way they use textbooks today to supplement their classes. In some cases, people will try to use MOOCs to substitute for classes they would have been giving in person. That will happen only if students actually learn more effectively with the MOOCs than they did in the other genre. Early indications are that students who need the most help may not get the most benefit from MOOCs. This format works better for students who are self-starters and independent learners and don’t need much support outside the lecture format.
You are a passionate advocate of the liberal arts. Does it worry you to see people, mainly politicians, attack the concept of liberal arts education?
There’s a know-nothing streak in American history where politicians who have a hard time understanding education in general begin to opine on what kind of education would be most effective. The sad part is that some families and students will be frightened by the rhetoric around liberal arts education, and think they need to narrow their educational choices to be successful in the workplace. I believe the opposite.
It’s interesting that in Singapore, China, and Korea, there is a greater interest in liberal arts education than there was a decade ago. They are feeling the stultifying effects of standardized education, and they want students to have access to broader learning so they can be more innovative and add value where other people don’t see opportunities to add value.
Giving everyone a chance to discover meaningful work in which they can excel is a great part of American democracy. It makes us real citizens and not just subjects.
Last year you started the “three-year option” at Wesleyan. Tell us about that.
Given the cost of education today, I wanted students to know that eight semesters over four years with 25 or so weeks of vacation a year is not necessarily the way to go. The three-year option—six semesters of normal course load plus summer courses—allows families to save about 20 percent off the total cost of tuition.
Universities need to create more avenues for students to fulfill degrees—not by making the courses or requirements less onerous, but by giving them the ability to get the work done in unconventional ways.
That’s why I’m really interested in MOOCs. Out of this experiment we’ll find other ways in which students can learn as much as they learn in a regular class, but according to a different calendar. That will bring down the cost of education without dumbing down what we want students to get out of their education.
You’ve also announced a plan to hold tuition increases to inflation.
Yes, we’re going to try to keep them in sync with inflation in the future. We have a plan to do it. We’ll begin by cutting non-essential things, things that students don’t notice when we cut them. We reduced the size of the non-academic staff by 11 percent. I believe that restraining tuition increases will help us find ways to become more productive.
The flip side of that is financial aid. Wesleyan has long been need-blind with aid, but we saw almost a doubling of the percentage of the budget that went to financial aid. That’s the definition of unsustainable. We’ve decided to continue to be as generous as we can, but not say there’s unlimited financial aid. The definition of need-blind is somewhat “fluid” in many schools. If you just focus on SATs more in admissions you might have a wealthier student body—which would allow you to say you were need blind—but you’d be much less diverse. Wesleyan is more diverse now than it has ever been. Our numbers of first generation students and students of color, students from underrepresented groups, is higher than in much of our history. We can sustain that if we are very prudent about how we spend money.
We’ve increased the number of Pell Grant students at Wesleyan in the last five years by 60 percent, and we are building an endowment for financial aid. We are aggressively looking for kids who need financial aid and we will invest in them. But we’re not going to do so blindly. We’re going to use financial aid, not merit scholarships, and support the neediest students we have.