Will MOOCs Revolutionize Community Colleges?

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At the end of January, Bunker Hill and Mass Bay Community Colleges will become the first two-year schools in the country to step into the world of MOOCs when they offer a popular computer science and programming course streamed in from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Developed by edX, the online learning initiative founded by Harvard and MIT, the course offered at the two colleges will differ from MOOCs that have been available at four-year colleges. Students who take Introduction to Computer Science and Programming at the two schools will pay regular tuition and earn three credits if they complete the course.

Furthermore, the course will be presented as a flipped class, according to  Bunker Hill Community College President Mary L. Fifield. Students will listen to the online course on their own time and then meet twice a week with instructors to work on homework assignments.

For community colleges, the appearance of this blended MOOC represents a pivotal moment, but not one that will drastically change the way they operate. “I don’t think MOOCs are going to revolutionize community colleges,” Fifield says. “I think instead MOOCs are going to be another model or form of instruction that community colleges have access to that are beneficial at certain times and in certain programs — and we don’t know when yet.”

The Student Engagement Question

One of the major reasons for Fifield’s caution is that it is unknown whether MOOCs will address one of the major issues community colleges face — the need to enhance student engagement and improve degree completion rates.

At Bunker Hill, which sits across the Charles River from MIT, 30 percent of its students either drop out or “stop out” —  leave and then return — each semester. The students, who are primarily part-time, depart for reasons unrelated to academics: they may need to take a second job, care for a sick family member, or stay home with their children.

Though an assessment will not be conducted until the end of the course, MOOCs may have a high probability of success in engaging students at Bunker Hill, judging from other strategies that have worked at the  college.

Among the smorgasbord of courses the school offers — online courses, hybrid online courses, and face-to-face classes —  courses in which students interact with other students and faculty have proven to be the most effective. Specifically, a newer model called Learning Communities — in which students take courses blocked together and engage in collaborative learning — has been the most effective.

The MOOC Advantage

Still, MOOCs provide several key advantages that could meet the needs of community colleges facing tight budgets. They provide an opportunity for students to learn from world-class faculty and take courses they would have not been able to access. The MOOC offered at Bunker Hill, for example, will focus on a programming language known as Python, which has not been taught at the college before.

Even if the course is successful, Fifield does not expect an avalanche of MOOCs hitting her college. “I don’t see MOOCs overtaking community colleges nor do I see them as the primary way of community colleges delivering instruction,” she says. “Community colleges have always prided themselves on an interpersonal face-to-face interaction between and among students and between and among faculty and students. I don’t think we would ever want to lose that personal touch.”

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