Photo: TLIC file photo shows Molloy College students getting acquainted during freshmen orientation.

Playing Ping Pong with 20,000 people

By Drew Bogner, President of Molloy College, Rockville Centre

Ping pong is a back-and-forth game. I hit the ball to you, you react and then I have to respond to what you do. The entire game is based on how we respond to each other.

Good teaching has similar qualities, and the connection between professor and student can greatly influence how much learning actually takes place. This connection is what is most overlooked in today’s debate over how to reduce the cost of higher education.

In the search to make higher education more affordable, many people have seized on online learning and, in particular, MOOCs (massive open online courses) as a way to reduce costs. The rationale is that if a professor can teach 20 students, why not have her teach 20,000 at the same time? Wouldn’t there be enormous savings that a college could then pass on to students in terms of reduced tuition?

MOOCs certainly have value, as does online learning in general. The student has access to a professor without having to leave his home and, in many cases, can access this course at a time most convenient for the student. Similarly, one can go online and watch Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to walk on the moon in 1969. It’s incredible to be able to see that footage (particularly if you missed it the first time), and it is a great way to supplement your knowledge of this important historical event.

It can be very exciting to take a MOOC with a famous professor but, except for some limited email or text exchanges, there is very little real interaction. You hear the professor, but there is no real exchange between the two of you. In this way, MOOCs are like a webinar; they can provide value, but they are primarily a one-way conversation.

In the ideal learning environment, there is often an “a-ha” moment that happens when the student grasps a concept for the first time, usually a result of a direct exchange with the professor. The Japanese call this “satori,” a moment of enlightenment, and this moment is a key goal of every good professor.

You don’t have to make a decision between MOOCS and traditional classroom instruction. There is real value in a hybrid model that blends the best of online learning with actual class time and real interaction between professors and students. Students can take some portion of the class online, reducing commuting and/or providing them with the flexibility of taking a part of the class at a time most convenient to them. This would be combined with intensive class time that would enable the professor to reinforce concepts originally studied or learned online.

This is the approach that Molloy believes is the best fit for most students. More important, the hybrid approach is true to the culture of Molloy, which emphasizes personal attention and a deep sense of community, something that could not be replicated in a pure online learning environment.

I do not anticipate too many people would want to earn a full degree through online classes only. Education is more than career preparation and skill acquisition. It is about formation – about becoming who you were meant to be, the truest version of yourself. And this happens through interaction – the real give and take of conversation, dialogue and the exchanging of ideas. And for those of us who have children, would you want your son or daughter to earn a degree strictly though online learning, without any true interaction?

If you play ping pong, one of the things you probably enjoy is the conversations you have with your opponent while playing. That give and take between ping pong players is what makes the game enjoyable for so many people. Would you want to play ping pong with a computer that says nothing to you?

The back-and-forth aspect is what is lost with MOOCs. No matter how good a MOOC professor might be, it is extremely difficult to play ping pong with 20,000 people.