A One Year BA? – The Prosecution

After coming up with the idea of a One Year BA, the next step was to calculate whether it was even possible to fit 30+ MOOC and other free learning courses that would meet the degree requirements of a liberal arts college or university into a twelve month timeframe.

There were a fair number of MOOCs available at the start of 2013 which clearly spelled out the number of weeks and hours per week required for each course.  And while there was not enough MOOC content to fulfill all the distribution and major requirements equivalent to a BA at the time, it looked like the ability to leverage other college-level free-learning resources and the flexibility to fit study hours into any time of the day meant there would be enough hours in the year to make this work.

At the same time, I did a less rigorous calculation to see if it was theoretically possible to cram four years of college into one if I were enrolled in a traditional residential college or university which would involve taking classes at three times the normal pace for a matriculated student (assuming classes would go on all year – including during the summer).

Unsurprisingly, no school calendar I could find would allow someone to fit this many classes into such a short time period.  But, more importantly for this discussion, having gone through a traditional four-year college degree program a while back, it was clear to me that even if scheduling were not a problem, trying to fit 32 semester-long, brick-and-mortar college classes into twelve months would not be possible given the workload of courses created by professors who assume their students are each taking no more than 4-5 classes at a time.

By this logic then, the reason a One Year MOOC BA could work while a One Year residential BA would probably not is because – on average – MOOC classes make fewer demands on students than do their residential equivalents.

Now that “on average” is an important point since I can think of several classes I’ve taken this year, including edX’s Ancient Greek Hero, Science and Cooking and ChinaX; Coursera’s Think Again and The Modern and the Postmodern, and Udacity’s Intro to Statistics and Psychology that clearly modeled themselves on traditional semester-long courses.

And while other classes varied in terms of scope and rigor, the ones that were not modeled on existing semester-long courses were all less demanding on student time and brainpower than were courses deliberately designed to mimic residential equivalents.

In some cases, this was because professors – freed from the tyranny of the semester system – were able to focus on just a single topic they loved to teach.  Many of my favorite humanities and social sciences courses, such as Coursera’s Property and Liability, Fall and Rise of Jerusalem and Kierkegaard classes, fell into this category.  Some courses were lecture only (a topic I’ve taken up before, so I won’t repeat those arguments here).  And in a few cases (such as edX’s Justice or Saylor’s Existentialism classes) the course went on for the number of week’s you’d expect for a full-semester class, but the level of demand placed on students (who were only asked to pass a few relatively easy multiple-choice quizzes) created a contrast between the heft of the material being taught and the lightness of what students were asked to do with what they were studying.

Putting your learning to work was another area where MOOCs seemed less demanding than the classroom courses I remember from long ago.  Even having gone the extra step of fulfilling both required and optional work in classes like Coursera’s Einstein and Relativity course, I probably ended up writing fewer than ten papers during my “four year” degree program.  And, as I’ve complained about on several occasions, assessment (whether as part of weekly quizzes or final exams) was pretty light across the board in almost all the courses I’ve taken.

So if you were to ask me if the work I put into the last twelve months is equivalent to the amount I put into four years of residential college back in the 1980s, the answer would have to be no.

But this brings up the question of whether the learning that goes on either at a residential college or through an online equivalent requires that every class be packaged into a 12-14 week semester with a specific number of lectures per week coupled with a specific number of papers, tests and other assignments in order to be considered legitimate.

For instance, would I know that much more about Kierkegaard’s relationship to Socrates had I written two 2000-word papers on the topic vs. one?  And is my grasp of what Michael Sandel  taught so well in his Justice course diminished by the fact that I had to create my own level of rigor by writing short essays for the weekly required comments to make up for the fact that the course did not include a graded writing component?

In short, even if my One Year BA didn’t require me to spend as much time on each individual class as I had to in order to earn my original four year degree, does that necessarily mean I learned less in the process?

An answer to that question will form the basis of the defense for college equivalency of my One Year BA which you can read tomorrow.

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