09/12/2013 02:05 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

Traditional Liberal Arts Colleges: It's Time to Join The MOOC Conversation

Online courses are no longer solely synonymous with for-profit, community and large state colleges. MOOCs, traditionally defined as Massive Open Online Courses, serve as a model for delivering free learning content to anyone who wishes to enroll. Since their breakthrough in 2012, MOOCs have summoned a sense of urgency for institutions deciding whether to assimilate or differentiate.

The aftermath of rapid adoption at large, elite institutions and flagship state schools is the growing myth that MOOCs will threaten traditional liberal arts colleges. The original MOOC platform, however, was designed to deliver engaged learning activities found at the heart of these small institutions. MOOCs can bring the best traditional liberal arts instruction in direct dialogue with fresh ideas from students across the globe if carefully tied to institutional goals. Last December, Wellesley College announced its first course offerings with edX, making it the first liberal arts college to offer MOOCs. Will other small institutions join the conversation?

Although MOOCs could serve instructional goals in numerous ways, four integrative models resolve tensions between tradition and innovation: 1) a closed network with peer institutions 2) community engagement programs 3) student-led independent research with a supervising professor; and 4) summer programs for remediation and youth enrichment.

An online collaboration among faculty from two or three campuses could expand social, professional and educational opportunities for their enrolled students. Examples of this model, such as those consortia partnering with 2U, avoid concerns over awarding credit due to the inherent peer oversight and involvement. Uniquely, a closed network with peer institutions capitalizes on each instructor's expertise; an American History course, for example, could exhibit specialists in African American Studies, Economics and Political Science on the topic of World War II. Students and faculty also benefit from the disciplinary connections made across several campuses. Finally, this model could lead to more research opportunities for students and faculty, including access to each institution's library resources.

Secondly, alumni are an asset to any college campus. Creating an online environment that puts alumni in direct interaction with current students provides a model of lifelong learning that reflects the true values of a liberal arts education. Doug Fisher, Vanderbilt University's Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, proposes maintaining alumni connections to the college campus with MOOCs, and Janine DeBaise has seen the benefits of including alumni in this "global community." These partnerships can place an institution's educational resources into the community while strengthening the collaborative problem-solving skills needed for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st-century.

A staple of the small, liberal arts institution is the one-on-one learning environment between professor and student facilitated by independent studies. MOOCs, as upper-level specialty courses, provide students with more educational opportunities than most small institutions are able to offer, while still falling under the guidance of a supervising professor. This model also encourages faculty development in the process of screening courses, especially if a student and professor enroll in a MOOC together as part of a collaborative research project. Offering upper level students a hand in selecting and evaluating pertinent MOOCs for independent research will encourage self-guided learning.

Many colleges face the challenge of working with freshmen who lack college preparedness. Public institutions, such as the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, have designed MOOCs to prepare students for math and science courses and improve graduation numbers in less time and at lower costs. In addition to providing remediation for college students, online courses could also serve as a college primer for high school guidance counselors, students, and parents. Many campuses and universities offer such programs in-person, but putting these programs online alleviates the distance obstacle and reduces the drain of resources for repetitive information sessions. In addition, such online programs facilitate recruiting and establish an early, ongoing relationship between the campus and high schools. MOOCs, even at small, traditional schools, could be an enhancement to recruitment and college readiness programs.

On the instructional side a hybrid model will be key to preserving the values and environment of a liberal arts education with the potential benefits of MOOCs for small colleges. Removing the need for lecturing through the online platform will encourage instructors to provide unique learning experiences for the students they work with so closely. Although collegiate interactions can be simulated online, traditional small colleges preserve something irreplaceable: the physical campus. The unique properties of this spatial environment reflect centuries of learning and impress upon students timeless values of commitment, service, and loyalty to one's alma mater. Institutions and their administrations should consider the potential that MOOCs bring to the table: an investment in enhancing the student learning experience.