Online Education: WellesleyX, a Grand Experiment

BERLIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 03:  A trainee uses software simulating a milling machine at a Siemens training center on Septemb
BERLIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 03: A trainee uses software simulating a milling machine at a Siemens training center on September 3, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. Nearly 400 trainees began their apprenticeship training programs today at an in-house educational facility at the Siemens factory in Berlin. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Online education has been hailed by some as the potential savior of higher education. It is expected that online education will enable more students to be educated, more cheaply, with more thorough assessment, and more focus on usable job skills. It is thought to be the greatly needed disruptive innovation that could serve students better than standard classrooms.

Those of us who have been forerunners in the innovative teaching of undergraduates have been cautious about seizing this "opportunity." The reason is simple: We see online education as better suited to training than to educating.

Ultimately, our mission is not merely to train students in the skills necessary for entry-level jobs, but rather to educate students to become lifelong learners and to have the skills for a lifetime of jobs. We believe that face-to-face interaction in the classroom and on campus is an essential part of the educational experience. Each class is an intellectual and interactive experience in which the teacher is responding continually to the students' ability to understand and be excited about the topic, and the student is learning how to learn. Because of this, we have been skeptical about the current hype surrounding online education.

All that being said, Wellesley College has just become the first liberal arts college to join edX, the online learning initiative recently founded by Harvard and MIT.

Why then, given the skepticism I noted, is there now a WellesleyX?

We have joined edX because we believe that colleges with a strong emphasis on teaching excellence have an imperative to use all means available to improve undergraduate education. We have joined to explore the possibility of creating better undergraduate experiences for our students.

I view this as an opportunity for a faculty known for innovation in the classroom to continue to experiment with the use of new technologies that have the potential to bring even more excitement to learning, and to enhance and enliven the classroom experience. Using a powerful platform such as edX, Wellesley faculty can fully explore the concept of blended learning -- a process that combines the best of classroom and non-classroom experience.

We have also joined edX because we believe that the transformative experience of a liberal arts education, which has been so successful at Wellesley for generations, can contribute important value to the online learning space. Through edX and its partners, we will strive to develop the highest quality online education possible.

But edX offers us something more, another way to bring about an even better educational experience. Students online will be tracked, and their progress studied, allowing us to learn which pedagogical approaches are most effective, and which don't work. Through data collection, we will be able to link individual learning to our syllabi, content delivery, and interactive tools, and clearly assess the effectiveness of each.

In addition, edX provides other exciting opportunities. For Wellesley College, the opportunity to provide access to Wellesley professors for many around the world -- especially women -- who would not otherwise have that opportunity, is consistent with our values. We imagine women in Saudi Arabia taking WellesleyX courses without having to leave their homes, or women in our own country taking a Wellesley course while juggling jobs and raising children, or young people from all areas of the country -- rural and urban -- trying their hand at an interesting course, expanding their knowledge of history, their appreciation of art and science, and their insight into our society.

Yet another benefit is the potential for WellesleyX to become the means by which we provide lifelong learning for our alumnae -- something they want and something we want to do. We hope to extend their four-year educational experience to a lifetime.

WellesleyX is not a replacement for the traditional Wellesley experience, nor is it intended to be. It will necessarily be different from our dynamic, engaged classroom. But it will provide new ideas about engaged undergraduate learning. It will challenge us to think about the ways we will successfully educate students in 2020. It will provide us with a new way of creating a classroom populated with students from all walks of life, bringing unique perspectives to classroom conversations, improving the learning experience for those participating, and building analytical, creative, and communication skills so highly sought in today's world.

I do believe that online education has the potential to improve the quality of education in this country. Whether we are a university, a liberal arts college, or a community college, our common goal is to enable learning. While we have different challenges, online education offers each of us an opportunity to create a more engaged educational environment. An engaged learning environment leads to more engaged students, a higher graduation rate, which in turn leads to more successful graduates, and a more educated society.

For all of these good reasons, we have begun WellesleyX.