Gates: Community colleges should give MOOCs a try

Bill Gates has a message for community colleges: there’s a spot waiting for them on the massive open online course (MOOC) bandwagon.

At a gathering of community college leaders, Bill Gates urges the educators to experiment with MOOCs. Many of those at the two-year institutions remain skeptical.

It’s not often that the phrases MOOC and community college are paired together, and when they are, it’s not usually with a positive connotation.

Some detractors of the online courses have derided MOOCs for what they feel is an overreliance on “elite” schools. But if public and state colleges have felt short-shrifted by the experimental type of online learning, community colleges have been all but ignored — to the point that some educators at two year institutions have written off the online courses altogether.

Gates, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft who famously dropped out of college, offered a dissenting opinion last week at the Association of Community College Trustees Leadership Congress in Seattle. Gates urged campus leaders and instructors there to try their hand at MOOCs.

“I’d be the first to say that this is the period of experimentation,” he said. “But as a community, we will learn much faster if people jump in and engage in this experimentation.”

Gates compared the video lecture aspect of MOOCs to the advent of recorded music. Concerts did not simply disappear because people could now listen to songs at their own leisure, he argued. Recorded music and live performances found a way to complement and enhance each other.

Similarly, instructors will not disappear either, he said. Instead, the best of a teacher’s lectures will be recorded, freeing up time that would normally be spent replicating a similar lesson year after year, and allowing students to watch the talks over and over.

See Page 2 for reaction to Gates’ remarks from community college leaders.

“Recorded music meant that there were aspects — not all aspects of music — but aspects like the lecture where the very, very best gets used thousands and thousands of times instead of just getting used once,” Gates said. “We’re definitely coming to that type of change.”

But it’s still not a change that many community college faculty and administrators feel is a right fit for their students.

Congressman Ruben Hinojosa, the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, told eCampus News in July that community colleges need to adopt ways of delivering education that are geared specifically toward them, and stay away from the university-focused MOOCs.

“While MOOCs have gained international attention for their innovation, they were not designed to serve the type of students who attend these institutions,” he said.

J. Noah Brown, the president of the ACCT, said he is also skeptical of MOOCs and their application to two-year institutions.

Pointing to a study from the Community College Research Center which suggests that community college students struggle with any kind of online learning, Brown said that MOOCs, in their current incarnation, just don’t work for the students he and his colleagues work with.

“There’s the digital divide and issues of deficiencies in terms of reading and writing,” he said. “In many cases, there’s a need for a pretty high level of human interaction in order to get these issues squared away and to correct any deficits they have. MOOCs may ultimately be beneficial, but right now it’s not clear to me.”

Interaction between students and instructors remains a key challenge with MOOCs, though Gates did note that they are capable of interactivity in a way that was unthought of for online video lectures a decade ago.

Gates suggested a hybrid model, not unlike the idea of the “flipped classroom,” were students take advantage of a MOOC’s video lectures and worksheets, but then still come into a physical classroom after.

“Good technology does free up time,” he said. “In some ways, it doesn’t make sense that lectures are done over and over again.”

Brown admitted he could see this type of model working with some students, particularly for core courses like college algebra or English, but it would still require a MOOC to be centered on the needs of the individual.

Community college students are simply not the same as those at four-year universities, he said, and the instructional methods have to differ.

“The long and short of it is, it’s a little premature to know exactly how MOOCs will help community colleges and our students,” Brown said.

Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.

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