You can't read about higher education these days without coming across multiple references to MOOCs -- Massive Open Online Courses. More people are probably writing and talking about MOOCs than actual students are completing online courses, but either way you count it, MOOC mania is widespread. On my campus, however, we might not have MOOCs, but we do have MIICs -- Massively Intensive Innovative Courses.
Allow me to explain.
A few years ago, at the conclusion of a long, drawn-out discussion about calendar and curriculum, the faculty at Washington and Lee adopted a plan to revitalize the short term at the end of our regular academic year. For many years, W&L had a six-week spring term with students taking either two courses on campus or one six-credit course off campus. It was a January term with good weather. It worked, but not perfectly.
The revitalized spring term is shorter and more intense. We now expect students to take one four-week course each spring that will fully engage them. The faculty developed new courses with innovative pedagogies and course enhancements that often involve travel, guest speakers and special activities outside the classroom.
A generous grant from the Mellon Foundation helped the faculty create more than 200 spring term courses. A grant from the Teagle Foundation supported our efforts to enhance and expand our Spring Term Abroad programs.
The new spring term is now four years old, and the early results are in: The faculty is exhausted, and the students are excited. Off campus, students are doing internships in Washington, D.C., shadowing physicians in Richmond, and traveling abroad with W&L professors in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. On campus, they are taking courses titled Computer Forensics, the Science of Cooking, Introduction to Robotics, Aerial Dance, Animal Behavior and Human Morality, the Mathematics of Puzzles and Games, Genetic Engineering and Society, Motion Picture Screenwriting, Diplomacy in Practice, Superheroes and Great Trials in History. The list goes on.
Many of the courses involve travel and special guest speakers. Cheech Marin, the comedian and actor, is an avid collector of Chicano art. He spent time on campus with students taking a course on that subject and shared a gallery display from his personal collection. A philosophy course studying the abortion controversy went to Washington to hear oral argument in the Supreme Court. History students studying the civil rights era traveled to some of the landmark locations where demonstrations and assassinations shaped the national agenda on those issues. An economics class on the auto industry included a trip to Detroit to meet with executives of the Ford Motor Co. Students in a geology course stood next to lava flowing from a Hawaiian volcano into the sea, and a class on Shakespeare traveled to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton and did their own performance of "Hamlet." The outside-the-classroom enhancements go on and on.
The idea behind the new intensive and innovative spring term is to break free from the bonds of regular classroom learning and to overcome the tendency of students to spread themselves thin across a variety of academic activities. For four weeks in the spring, our undergraduates study one, and only one, subject. During those four weeks, they become deeply involved in their single course, and they go beyond regular and routine classroom lectures and discussions. This is not education as mere content or packageable instruction. No, these courses are massively intensive and massively innovative and could legitimately bear the acronym of MIIC.
Of course, we do not call our new spring term courses MIICs or use any other clever terminology to describe them. I do so here for the cheap trick of attracting attention to a worthwhile educational project that might otherwise be ignored.
At many liberal arts colleges, faculty and administrators are working hard to maintain and improve an educational model that runs in the opposite direction of MOOC mania. At liberal arts colleges, we don't want our students to be distance learners; we want them to work side by side with faculty. We don't want to design educational activities for the masses; we want to continue to provide excellent students with the time and attention of dedicated, creative teacher-scholars, even if that time and attention is expensive. We don't constantly look for ways to deliver generic educational products to large groups of people; we do pay attention to improving the special educational experience available on small, close-knit campuses like Washington and Lee.
The diverse world of higher education might need both MOOCs and MIICs. Intensity and innovation are just as important as openness and accessibility. MOOCs might earn their place in some colleges and universities, but we should not allow them to overshadow and overwhelm other worthwhile educational reforms that happen to lack an acronym and a patina of revolutionary change.
Robert A. Strong is interim provost and the William Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University. This essay originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on June 19, 2013.