New Directions in Higher Ed, Then and Now

The Experimental College celebrates its 50th anniversary with a look into MOOCs and the future of education

Skyrocketing college tuitions, a plummeting economy and burgeoning online technologies provided the backdrop for the first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, in 2011. Taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig at Stanford University, the class on artificial intelligence drew some 160,000 students from around the world.

By 2012, some were calling MOOCs the “black swan” of higher education that would make brick-and-mortar universities obsolete and give more people wider access to a low-cost college education. The New York Times declared 2012 the Year of the MOOC.

So is the digital college for real? Tufts undergraduates and their faculty advisor, Ken Garden, an assistant professor of religion in the School of Arts and Sciences and Tisch College Faculty Fellow, decided to see for themselves by taking multiple MOOCs and analyzing their effectiveness for the Experimental College course “The MOOC Revolution?”

The idea for the class, which was offered last fall, was sparked by this year’s 50th anniversary of the Experimental College, known on campus as the Ex College. Garden, who chairs the Ex College board, and the students will present their findings at a day-long conference to commemorate the anniversary, “The Future of Higher Education,” on April 11 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Coolidge Room, Ballou Hall, on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus. The conference builds off a similar Ex College forum seven years ago that examined the state of higher education.

The 50th-anniversary event will attempt to project what the higher education landscape will look like several decades from now by addressing topics such as online education, for-profit colleges, cost and equity and issues around the race, class and immigrant status of college students. The anniversary celebration will conclude on April 12 with an alumni party at Boston’s Museum of Science.

“We want to consider what is experimental about the Experimental College half a century after it started,” Garden says. “And since MOOCs are the biggest experiment going on in education right now, we thought the Ex College should join that conversation.”

Back to 1964

The Ex College was founded in April 1964 by Tufts President Nils Yngve Wessel to ensure that the university curriculum continued to embrace change and innovation. Tufts was among the first universities to recognize that a generation disillusioned by John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War and segregation would seek to challenge the status quo and demand relevance from their education.

Today, Tufts’ Ex College is the oldest such program within a traditional U.S. university, says Robyn Gittleman, G69, director of the Ex College since 1973. “Its longevity is proof it saw the future of education was to integrate courses that don’t fit the rubric of traditional academic departments. It’s hardly an experiment anymore,” she says.

Sixty percent of Tufts undergraduates take at least one Ex College course during their time here. Over the years, courses have segued into established programs and minors such as Peace and Justice Studies, Africana Studies, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership and Communications and Media Studies.

Many courses that are now offered through the School of Arts and Sciences started at the Ex College: Hindi, Urdu, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, American Sign Language, dance, experimental film, jazz and photography, to name a few. The early computer language Cobol and a course on game development now taught in the School of Engineering were both offered first in the Ex College.

The Experimental College is “a vessel that allows us to take whatever’s current or what students are interested in” and design courses that are participatory and interactive, says Howard Woolf, the college’s associate director.

The college has continued to evolve by using adjunct lecturers from a range of professions and backgrounds as its teachers, by offering student-taught courses and, perhaps most importantly, by giving students a voice on the board that plans each year’s curriculum.

Finding Its Niche

“The MOOC Revolution?” was one such course, says Kumar Ramanathan, A15, a member of the Ex College board who developed the course with Garden. He and the other students in the class investigated as many as five MOOCs each. Ramanathan, a philosophy major, completed two MOOCs in different subjects with very different goals: “Intro to Philosophy,” offered by the University of Edinburgh, and “Contraception: Choices, Culture and Consequences,” offered by the University of California, San Francisco.

“The philosophy course was good at imparting information, like a survey course, but not very good at imparting methodology or how to think about the information,” Ramanathan says. For each of the seven weeks of the class, a different professor delivered a video lecture in his or her area of expertise, and that was interesting, he says. But the course lacked a moderated discussion, and so, unlike in a real classroom environment, there was no way to hone thinking skills or benefit from the ideas of fellow students, he says.

Conversely, Ramanathan says he learned things in the five-week contraception course that he would not have in a traditional classroom. The most active participants on the message boards were primarily practitioners and professionals in medicine and health education.

“The readings and the video lectures were augmented by a very lively discussion board that exposed me to a breadth of questions and conversations I would not have found in a traditional setting,” Ramanathan says.

Both Garden and Ramanathan agree that MOOCs’ niche may well be in the professional development arena, and, at least for the moment, not in providing a traditional liberal arts education. Students who pursue MOOCs receive certificates of completion for their courses, but these do not translate into college credits that can be applied toward a degree.

“I would be very hesitant to accept one of these courses for credit,” says Garden. “There is no unified oversight of content, and they can last anywhere from four to seventeen weeks, so it would be hard to judge their substance.”

“MOOCs are well suited to certain kinds of computer science courses, for example, where you can easily determine that a programming language has been understood. It’s quantifiable,” says Ramanathan. But without exposure to college or university classroom teaching and discussion, most online students do not have the experience to approach the academic material in a meaningful way; they don’t know what questions to ask, he says.

“This is borne out by a survey that shows that most of the people taking MOOC liberal arts courses already have college degrees,” says Garden, who took courses on Kierkegaard, the letters of Paul and the ancient Greek hero. “They just want to enrich or expand their knowledge in a chosen field,” he notes.

Aside from content, there is the question of MOOCs’ economic viability. Many of these online courses are now offered by large private enterprises that partner with universities; the three largest are Coursera, edX and Udacity. To date, it is unclear if any of them has earned a profit, says Garden. They survive on private investments and small fees charged for different kinds of course completion certificates or subscriptions to certain kinds of courses, but the bulk of the courses remain free.

And the numbers of courses offered are far from massive: 631 available through Coursera, 150 at EdX, and 25 at the newest, Udacity, which started in 2011 with a heavy focus on computer science.

While it is possible that MOOCs may yet find the economic, academic and technological models to threaten traditional colleges and universities, Garden and Ramanathan say they suspect that will not happen any time soon. Their final report on the MOOC class experiment concludes this way: “The rapturous enthusiasm for [MOOCs] came from the conviction that [they] would create an entirely new model of higher education that would solve problems inherent in the present model, mainly cost and accessibility. Does the MOOC live up to this promise? In our experience, no.”

Gail Bambrick can be reached at


Experimental College Milestones

1964 The Tufts Experimental College is founded, and the first class offered is “The Contemporary European Novel.”

1966 The first Tufts film studies courses offered; undergraduates become full voting members of the Ex College Board.

1968 The first computer programming courses; a class on urban poverty is the first given by a visiting lecturer.

1969 The university’s first classes in African American studies and women’s studies.

1972 Freshman Explorations, a student-led seminar program that combines advising and academics for entering students, launches; Tufts’ first courses on homosexuality offered.

1980 First Tufts jazz course.

1984 Founding of the Peace and Justice Studies program.

1985 Campus-wide teach-in on apartheid offered by EPIIC (Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship), a program that was housed in the Ex College for its first decade.

1994 Rape Awareness Defense program begins.

1996 Communications and Media Studies program becomes an undergraduate minor.

1997 TUTV, the student-run television station, becomes a program of the Ex College; first Tufts screenwriting course offered.

2000 First online course, “Genetics, Ethics and the Law.”

2014 50th anniversary of the Tufts Experimental College.

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