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An Online Education?

One professor explains what MOOCs cannot offer. by Dr. Heather M. Whitney, assistant professor of physics


Peruse collection such as The Chronicles of Higher Education or the education section of The New York Times and you will see the acronym MOOC over and over again. MOOC stands for massive open online course, the harbinger of some significant changes in higher education. These courses are designed to instruct upwards of 50,000 students via online platforms. Topics are varied, but some courses, such as Classical Mechanics offered by EdX, cover the same content as courses offered at Wheaton.

How does a MOOC compare with my daily experience as a professor at Wheaton? In my Computer Modeling course, for example, I teach students to analyze physical systems using computational tools. Each instructional period, I chat with my 16 students as I set up my materials. Next we engage in a brief discussion of a topic related to faith and learning. This semester I am introducing my students to arguments by Joel Adams on why Christians should pursue training and work in technical fields. The students discuss in pairs their reactions to a certain perspective on the topic and then present their reactions to the class for group discussion. We dedicate our instructional time to the Lord in prayer and then turn our attention, on one particular day, to finding the roots of an equation via computational methods. I speak with each student individually about the big picture of the technique and how he or she is applying it to an example problem. At the end of class, we discuss the suitability of this problem-solving technique, as well as how to ensure that results are communicated contextually and accurately.

A group of 16 students chatting and interacting with one professor versus 50,000 students tuning in to a team-led MOOC—what a contrast! Everything I do as a professor is focused on how it supports our students, not just as a group but individually. When I instruct students in classical mechanics or computational modeling in the classroom, I seek to connect with each one, gauging their understanding and customizing our activities to support their learning.

Students also motivate my faith and learning project, as I investigate how nineteenth-century physicists Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell approached the task of transforming the new understanding of electricity and magnetism into mathematical form. I hope to encourage and inspire students to think beyond the equations and to consider the efforts already made by scientists to communicate through carefully crafted equations that represent real physical entities and interactions. Discussions of research efforts in my department, even ones that might garner external funding, are always within the context of how these efforts will support our students.

News stories too often highlight both entrepreneurial and governmental efforts to boil education down to a series of checkmarks that students can accumulate for a certain price. Unfortunately, this system can turn students themselves into a commodity. But at Wheaton College, our students are anything but a commodity. Here faculty, staff, parents of students, alumni, and friends invest in every individual. Our corporate efforts come together each May when we see our precious students, each one an individual expression of the body of Christ, walk across the stage in Edman Chapel and into a life of service to God and humanity.

Dr. Heather M. Whitney is assistant professor of physics and holds a master’s degree in medical physics and a Ph.D. in physics from Vanderbilt University. She performs research in nuclear magnetic resonance and quantitative ultrasound imaging, having mentored six students in research activities in her first three years at Wheaton. Her teaching, both in support of the physics and liberal arts engineering majors and general education curriculum, references applications to medical physics whenever possible. She and her husband, Joshua, also a physicist, have one son.

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