GORHAM – We academics might seem conservative about change — we even wear 14th-century garb at commencement ceremonies — but change happens.

Higher education has a responsibility to anticipate and respond to change, at the same time that we preserve and pass along traditions and legacies of the sciences, the arts and other areas of human knowledge and endeavor. And because the role of academia is central to the notion of community, our conversations should be public.

Among the changes happening to education is the growth of multiple platforms of learning. The classroom is just one small box, but the Internet is a giant portal.

Online learning expands student access, broadens opportunities and builds new communities. Seat-in-the-chair time in traditional classrooms will not be replaced by online learning, but it certainly will be changed by it.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are just the latest buzz in academia.

In places such as Stanford University and MIT, tens of thousands of students can enroll in just one MOOC. Even with completion rates below 10 percent, a large number of students benefit.

Most brick-and-mortar schools are wary of such endeavors but they should view them as opportunities, not threats.

For example, MOOCs can help bring students into higher education by allowing a “safe” at-home approach through a low-cost single course, which might encourage the student to take the plunge and enroll in a program.  

Further, schools can add seminars of face-to-face classroom time to provide students the opportunity to reflect upon their MOOC learning and to have that knowledge validated through the earning of academic credits.

Change will be constant throughout the 21st century, so the academy must instill in students the skills and desire to learn throughout their lifetimes. We all must be lifelong learners.

To create this learning environment, the academy needs to reach out to students before and after college so that we cement more meaningful long-term relationships with them. Our success will depend upon greater flexibility in terms of how we structure and deliver courses.

One way in which the University of Southern Maine’s Department of Environmental Science addresses this challenge is with an intensive immersion course for all new students.

Our students and faculty come together in a lakeside setting for four days to learn natural science field research skills and, perhaps more important, to help build a personalized, supportive learning community.

We offer introductory online lab courses, as does the Department of Geosciences.

These online courses, which are rare in the sciences, maintain the same quality experiences as traditional laboratory courses through mentoring, peer learning and home-based science explorations — difficult tasks for both professor and student, but necessary ones to keep pace with increased demands on students’ time and responsibilities.

It can be argued that the role of the faculty is more important than ever. Many of us probably recall a time when our teachers instructed us to “find 10 references.”

But today, our students find 150,000 references at the stroke of a key. They must be able to evaluate and assign meaning to all this information — a much harder task and one that requires very careful guidance.

The key unit in this process is the academic department, because each discipline has its literature and its approach to knowledge that can help students analyze and interpret information. Based on this departmental culture, professors can help students make connections among a range of academic disciplines, the research and scholarship associated with each, the external community and employers.

All this takes more than professors. The connections are made with the help of staff throughout the campus community and with the support of friends, advocates and employers in the external community.

Just as we are all lifelong learners, we also are all faculty because, in a very real sense, everyone has a role in enhancing student learning.

Education takes place whether we are in a MOOC, a 300-seat lecture hall, a small seminar room, an off-campus research or internship setting or the workplace.

Universities that embrace all the different ways of learning have critically important roles to play in directing that education so our students derive the greatest benefit. Students have a right to expect no less.

Robert Sanford is professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus and co-director of the New England Regional Center, Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities.


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