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LANCASTER, PA — Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are as much a marketing tool as they are a teaching tool, one area college president told the Franklin & Marshall College audience Nov. 14.
Another president said institutes of higher education are scrutinizing whether credit hours properly assess the quality of academics, and some schools are exploring the idea of giving credit to adult students for their life and career experiences.
The two higher-education leaders and two other presidents spoke at F&M as a part of a panel exploring the changing educational landscape. All four said their institutions face fiscal challenges as state funding for higher education continues to wane.
The panelists -- John Anderson, who became the 14th president of Millersville University in April, William Griscom of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, Carol Lytch of Lancaster Theological Seminary, and John "Ski" Sygielski of Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) -- spoke on the topic of "Higher Education in Lancaster (and beyond)" at the F&M's Common Hour, held every Thursday during the academic year. The event brings together members of the community for culturally and intellectually enriching discussions and experiences.
F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield introduced the four presidents before taking a seat in the audience to listen to the discussion, which was moderated by Dennis Deslippe, an associate professor of American studies and women's & gender studies at F&M.
"It was an exciting panel of thoughtful college presidents and a great opportunity for F&M to learn about our fellow institutions and to see ourselves through the lens of the other institutions," Porterfield said.
F&M has spent the last year reviewing its liberal arts curriculum, so the Common Hour Committee decided it was an appropriate time to peer beyond the confines of the campus to consider the educational landscape more broadly, said Professor of Mathematics Annalisa Crannell, committee chair.
Presidents Anderson, Griscom, Lytch and Sygielski all agreed that technology had changed -- and would continue to change -- higher education, possibly in some fundamental ways.
Sygielski said HACC, which has a satellite campus in Lancaster, offers numerous courses via iTunes University, most of them in mathematics. He said HACC reported 1 billion hits to its iTunes site and praised MOOCs as a tool for higher education institutions to reach more people.
"We see it as a pedagogical tool, but we also see it as a marketing tool," Sygielski said.
Anderson called MOOCs the tip of the technology iceberg that is changing how colleges view education, from whether credit hours are a useful measure of learning, to giving credit based on a student's professional and life experiences.
"I think students now entering college are expecting a different kind of educational experience," and are looking beyond the traditional credit hour, Anderson said.
While online academic resources enhance the college learning experience, MOOCs don't fit every course or curriculum, said Lytch of the Theological Seminary.
"Technology has changed everything, and the challenge is, how do we use it appropriately?" Lytch said. "As a graduate school, I don't think we'll be doing MOOCs. It just doesn't fit our educational goals, which are very personalized."
The four presidents generally agreed the state should provide financial assistance to colleges and universities, but Griscom, of Thaddeus Stevens, said external factors challenging the nation -- an aging population, rising healthcare costs, and infrastructure repairs among them -- would significantly reduce funding in the years ahead.
"I don't think there's going to be more money because there's going to be fewer students," Griscom said. "What you will see is a re-distribution of funding for higher education."
Griscom also questioned whether higher education's focus on providing more amenities, such as climbing walls in fitness centers and lattes in coffee shops, is money well spent.
"(When I was a college student), I needed a clean, safe place to live," he said. "I wasn't there for vacation. I was there to learn."
Senior Alexia Tomlinson, a history major, who is mulling graduate school, said she found the panel members' perspectives intriguing.
"I thought President Griscom's perspective on the changes in college culture that went from, 'We're here to get an education,' to 'We're here for the experience' very interesting," Tomlinson said.