Revolution and evolution

One sentence from an article published by the New York Times last spring has stayed with me.

“Last fall, 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled in an Artificial Intelligence course taught by [Sebastian] Thrun and Peter Norvig, a Google colleague.”

While the enrollment for the Stanford course struck me as incredible at the time, I’ve read about a number of other MOOCs (or massive open online courses, as they are called) in recent days and learned about other class enrollment lists that ran to six digits.

-Numbers such as these illustrate the power of communications technology to eliminate the barriers of time and geography. And when one professor can reach 100,000 students at once, it raises the possibility that the cost of education could be lowered by achieving greater “efficiency.” Thus, many public policy analysts predict, online learning is the future of education.

However, I can’t help but think about the many stories Wheaton students and alumnae/i have told me about the special professor who encouraged and challenged them. Of the seminar in which a handful of students and one faculty member dug deeply together into the material, traveling well beyond textbooks and conducting original scholarship. Of the late-night discussions with classmates and roommates that helped to crystalize a new perspective or interest.

Such personalized, personal and communal learning experiences are Wheaton’s hallmark. It is the exact opposite of the online classroom “populated” by 100,000 students scattered across the globe’s time zones, connected by computer screens and overseen by a mostly unseen professor.

So, if online learning is an important part of the future of education, what does that mean for Wheaton and other residential liberal arts colleges?

It is a big question with no clear answer, yet there is some urgency to start testing possible responses. The importance that higher education plays in facilitating personal growth and professional success is matched only by how quickly the barriers to enrollment are rising. The cost of college has grown faster than median family incomes over the past two decades, and the recession that began in 2008 has exacerbated that gap between college cost and family income by weakening the financial positions of both families and institutions. Students and their families are understandably focused on issues of cost and value.

These trends present a fundamental challenge, and Wheaton is particularly vulnerable because it is highly tuition dependent. Approximately 85 percent of the college’s revenue comes from tuition payments. In recent years, the percentage of tuition revenue that the college must return to students in the form of financial aid has increased dramatically, placing the college under considerable pressure.

Wheaton needs to innovate and evolve in ways that add value to the education we offer, reduce costs whenever possible, and create new sources of revenue to lessen our dependence on tuition. This is a tall order. I’ve thought about it a lot and compared notes with many colleagues at gatherings of private college presidents. What I do believe is that there is no single solution to these challenges, which is, to some extent, liberating. We need to be bold, ready to experiment, yes. But we do not need to find the one, perfect solution. Strategic, thoughtful use of online learning technology may be appropriate, but it is just one possibility. Other options abound, including a renewed emphasis on integrating internships in the liberal arts, and an expansion of educational programs to serve younger students, graduate students or adults.

Our great advantage is the critical and creative capacity of the Wheaton community. I’m planning to tap into that strength this year by engaging the entire college in imagining a future that honors our core values while capitalizing on new opportunities. The college has invited a number of innovative thinkers on the future of higher education to talk with our faculty, staff, students, alumnae/i, parents and friends about the possibilities.

Whatever the future holds, I believe our ability to adapt will enable Wheaton to rise above the challenges of the moment. Working together—alumnae/i and students, parents and friends, faculty and staff—we will evolve, while holding true to our mission of helping a diverse group of intellectually curious students prepare for an abundant life of personal growth, professional success and civic engagement.

Illustration by David Laferriere