Click the logo for a full listing of series posts. (Image courtesy of Flickr user DeclanTM

Click the image for a full listing of series posts. (Image courtesy of Flickr user DeclanTM)

Just two years ago, some were heralding “the year of the MOOC” — the age when Massive Open Online Courses would permanently disrupt the higher education landscape and open instruction free to the masses. We’re now in what some call the “trough of disillusionment on the Gartner Hype Cycle.” In the open online learning community, this shift away from the “peak of inflated expectations” that we found ourselves in during 2012 represents a welcome correction.

Rather than a narrative that puts the MOOC phenomenon within a “bound-to-crash and there will be tears” frame, I believe we will eventually be telling a much happier story about the impact of MOOC hype. This will not be a story about open online learning replacing traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions or of one superstar professor replacing the teaching of thousands of others. Instead, the real impact of MOOCs will be felt far away from the open online edX or Coursera courses. The real impact of MOOCs will be found in the traditional introductory course.

Starting from the bottom

Visit any campus today, from an R1 research university to a small liberal arts college, and you will see some amazing changes going on. For the first time in … well, maybe for the first time ever, the introductory course is being systematically rethought, recreated and re-engineered. In fairness, this trend to redesign introductory courses builds on the pioneering work of Carol Twigg and the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT).

The difference today in the midst of the introductory course redesign revolution is about motivations and scale.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user  Jirka Matousek  and used here by Creative Commons license.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jirka Matousek and used here by Creative Commons license.

In previous years, the central motivation to redesign large introductory courses has been retention and costs. In STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), the course completion rate for introductory courses has been disturbingly low at many institutions. The failure of an individual student to complete a math or science introductory course carries with it many personal and institutional costs. A failed introductory STEM class will increase the likelihood that a student does not complete a degree in six years, will decrease (obviously) the probability that the student will major in a STEM field and will increase institutional and funder costs as classes need to be retaken.

The genius of the NCAT program was to create a methodology that leads to higher introductory course completion and student success, often at lower direct costs for the institution.

Today’s MOOC-catalyzed efforts to improve introductory courses diverge somewhat from the core motivations of NCAT grant recipients and participants. Mostly gone is the impetus to lower instructional costs. The motivations to improve introductory courses to affect student retention and success have not gone away, but they have been joined by a push to improve the value that students perceive from their learning experience in the course.

Improving course quality

Why this new attention on the student experience in introductory courses? Much of the credit should go to MOOCs. No college or university can today afford to offer an introductory course for its paying students that is not of superior quality to what the same students can get for free from an open online course. If a campus-based introductory course is no better than a MOOC, students (and their parents) will begin to vote with their feet.

The course credit and credentialing system will create somewhat of a buffer. Even the worst introductory course offered to paying students will come with course credit — credit that aggregates toward a degree. MOOCs are today outside of the credentialing system. Nobody in higher education, however, thinks that this monopoly on course credit will protect the core teaching product in the long run. The move to competency-based credentialing, combined with a more transparent system of teaching and a more informed set of students (and payers), will put enormous pressure on course quality — sooner, not later.

The economic reasons introductory courses are improving should not be overstated. Rather the open online learning phenomenon is providing a window for change in the in-person residential campus that many faculty and learning professionals (instructional designers, librarians, media specialists, etc.) are eager to jump through. Teaching practices in large introductory courses have long lagged behind the understanding of how people learn. The traditional lecture mode of teaching, where students are viewed as passive recipients of knowledge, has few enthusiastic supporters within academe. Many times instructors want to move the large lecture format to a more active and experiential model but find few resources or incentives to do so.

The excitement around MOOCs has ignited new conversations about teaching and learning on many campuses and at the same time served to redirect resources to teaching and learning initiatives. Expansion of techniques like flipping classrooms and gauging student learning through live polling has helped accelerate the uptake in introductory course redesign.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user  KendallSieron and used here by Creative Commons license.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user KendallSieron and used here by Creative Commons license.

Scaling the gains

We are also seeing noticeable changes to introductory course improvement in terms of scale. Where in previous years the number of large courses that were being redesigned was limited to certain disciplines or institutions, today we see huge numbers of courses that are being rethought and redeveloped. This change is occurring both bottom-up and top-down.

At the instructor level, many teachers of large introductory courses are taking it on themselves to change their own teaching methods. These instructor-led changes are partly enabled by new lightweight technologies that allow easy presentation capture and sharing, as well as ubiquitous learning management systems that facilitate online discussion, online lecture distribution, and formative assessment. These instructor-led changes stem in part from the new excitement and discussions occurring on campus about teaching and learning, discussions that are at least partially attributable to the MOOC phenomenon.

New catalysts for change

On the institutional end, we are seeing new funding and resource opportunities being made available for instructors wishing to redesign their courses. These new campus, school and department resources available for teaching, resources often explicitly targeted at investments in large introductory courses, are also the result of the momentum toward teaching innovation (spurred by MOOCs) and the new teaching competitive landscape (again spurred by MOOCs).

Some of these resources come in the form of instructional designers, a rapidly growing category of non-faculty educators being recruited to many campuses to work on online programs, blended courses, MOOCs, and now introductory course redesign. Other resources come through more traditional forms of faculty incentives — incentives designed to free up some of the time that is necessary for an instructor to rethink how a large course is delivered away from the traditional lecture/high-stakes test model that had previously worked for so many years.

The under-reported and under-recognized upshot of all the MOOC hype is meaningful and measurable improvements in the quality of traditional introductory courses. No longer will it be acceptable for the large-enrollment lecture course for first-year students to subsidize the low-enrollment seminar aimed at upperclassmen. Large enrollment classes will begin to see resources attention on parity with their size and importance in each student’s learning journey.

Large-enrollment introductory courses will evolve from the hit-or-miss experience, one characterized by wide variation in both quality and student success, to a more standardized and consistent quality learning experience. Legacy methods of passive lecture-based learning will be rapidly replaced by more active and experiential learning opportunities. This is a change in our system of higher education that is worth celebrating.

Dr. Joshua Kim is the Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL).  He has a PhD in demography and sociology from Brown University. Follow him on Twitter at @joshmkim.