Higher Ed for All

A bricks-and-mortar professor test drives online learning and ponders the future of colleges and universities

classroom scene from Tufts crica 1960

Fifty years ago, as a new assistant professor, I arrived at Tufts carrying a Smith-Corona portable typewriter and 30 sheets of carbon paper, left over from typing my dissertation. That was the cutting edge of academic technology for my time.

Recently I registered to take my first “massive open online course,” or MOOC: I felt I had to do something more than just whine about what this Internet education will do to the next generation of faculty. Browsing online, I discovered among all the dry, technical-sounding MOOCs what seemed like the perfect test course for me: Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul, taught by Professor Laura Nasrallah of Harvard Divinity School, and offered by EdX, a collaboration of Harvard, MIT and other universities.

When it begins in January, the course will have more than 21,000 students. I note with trepidation that 90 percent of those enrolled in MOOCs drop out. I hope to be among the 10 percent who finish. By the end of this experience, perhaps I will have a better idea of whether American higher education as we know it, the brick-and-mortar campus of students and faculty sharing space, will survive the 21st century.

American universities have been riding an extraordinary wave since the end of World War II. With Europe and Asia in ruins and Hitler having destroyed the German universities, the United States exploded out of the starting gate.

A Tufts graduate, Vannevar Bush, B.S., M.S., 1913, marshaled the American science and technology know-how that led to the National Science Foundation and the massive postwar funding for the National Institutes of Health. The United States opened its immigration doors just wide enough to welcome the European refugee scientists who became Americans and gave their Nobel Prize acceptance speeches in heavily accented English.

Research and education funding was available everywhere. Returning G.I.s poured into American colleges and graduate schools, and states expanded their higher education systems as fast as they could. By the late 1950s there were 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, and not enough faculty to fill all the positions: it was the Golden Age. We became the envy of the world, and, in spite of all the criticism, costs and complaints, we remain so.

But the classroom paradigm—teacher and student facing each other—stayed the same. To be sure, other paths have coexisted with it. When she was a teenager in the 1920s, my Aunt Shirley, one of the few in our immigrant family who attended high school, took a correspondence course to learn shorthand. In the 1930s she switched to a radio course, but dropped out, because her English wasn’t up to following the broadcast lectures.

Meanwhile, her husband, my Uncle Max, switched from repairing radios right after the war to installing the newly popular DuMont and Zenith television sets. (Max and Shirley were the first in our family to have a five-inch screen, around which we crowded to watch the 1947 World Series.) Shirley signed up for a television course on accounting through something called Sunrise Semester, administered by New York University. She wanted a college degree, and the new 12-inch RCA television set was her classroom. She took a hatful of courses, but never accumulated enough credits to graduate.

Tufts was itself part of the Lowell Institute consortium of universities, which produced popular television educational offerings. One of the 1960s teachers was Bernie Harleston, a charismatic Tufts professor of psychology who generated authentic star power in his for-credit course called simply Motivation, viewed by thousands of Boston adult learners. It was a bona fide academic course with lectures and exams.

Many schools still offer television courses for credit. But they have not supplanted the university as we have come to know it. Neither have the now pervasive online courses of the past decade—which hew to traditional ideas like restricted enrollment, limited class size and hefty tuitions.

Now comes the Age of the MOOC. Leading research universities, as well as for-profit entrepreneurs, have launched initiatives that hope to reach hundreds of thousands—even millions—of potential students and change the paradigm of higher education. Class size: unlimited. Typical tuition: zero. MOOCs seem capable of making a college degree available to anyone with a computer and a willingness to study. Thousands of syllabi, lectures and course curricula have been made available on the Internet, and now visionaries are trying to organize them into the university of the future—with degrees to go along with them—at a fraction of traditional cost.

Many questions remain: How will credit be granted? Will actual degrees be conferred? Will employers accept them? Can the high dropout rate be overcome? Will the faculty accept this model? Does the American college go the way of the bookstore and newspaper?

I’ll let you know when I’m done with St. Paul.

This article first appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, has been a professor of German, Judaic studies, and biblical literature and is a former provost of the university.

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