At the moment, the buzz in the higher education community is all about MOOCs -- massive open online courses. MOOCs, which in many cases are offered, for free, by top faculty at some of our nation's most prestigious universities including Harvard, MIT and Stanford, are now attracting millions of students worldwide. Individual courses may have enrollments of 20,000 or more students. Though not offered for academic credit, they have the advantage of being accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, regardless of the student's age, location, or ability to pay.
I applaud the professors who are providing MOOCs, sharing their passion for their subject matter, and exploring new learning and communications technologies. However, as the president of Albion College, a small liberal arts college, I question the long-term effectiveness of the mass approach to education that MOOCs represent. Numbers do matter -- at most liberal arts colleges, the majority of classes, by design, have fewer than 20 students. In this environment, faculty can guide students in sharing perspectives, debating ideas and making discoveries in ways that are just not possible when enrollments number in the hundreds or thousands.
Here are some of the ways that smaller really is better.