With enrollment rising faster than faculty hiring, class sizes at Northern Arizona University have been getting larger in recent years.
But what if NAU students wound up in classes numbering not hundreds but hundreds of thousands?
Or what if they chose a major with every course consisting of a class size of one -- themselves?
Those were two possibilities that NAU President John Haeger threw out Monday at a campus forum devoted to "institutional transformation."
NAU was an early adapter of the Internet in delivering courses online, but the advent of MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, has raised the stakes considerably, Haeger said.
"MOOCs could change the whole paradigm of higher education," Haeger told about 200 people at the High Country Conference Center as well as an online audience. "But no one knows how it will happen."
About three dozen of the nation's top universities have recently formed a consortium to develop more MOOCs in partnership with private education technology companies, with some even considering giving credit for the courses.
Haeger said NAU, like most state universities, faces declining public funding and must find new ways to deliver quality courses with fewer faculty.
MOOCs, he said, could give NAU students access to top-flight Ivy League professors in foundation courses, thus freeing up NAU professors to do more face-to-face problem-solving in the classroom or focus on writing research grant applications.
So far, however, the private companies behind the MOOCs, which are free and enroll up to 100,000 students at a time worldwide, haven't come up with a credible way to judge mastery of a subject by a student enough to award credit. Up to 95 percent of those who enroll in MOOCs reportedly fail to complete them.
And if the MOOCs are free, what will they do, Haeger asked, to an NAU business model that relies in part on the large enrollments in foundational courses to subsidize the smaller upper-level and graduate courses?
"We seem to be sending contradictory messages," said one audience questioner, noting that NAU is recruiting freshmen to attend a campus known for smaller classes, but talking about funneling them into gigantic, online courses. "Are MOOCs really for NAU?"
Responded Haeger: "I think we ought to look at it," adding that MOOCs aren't likely to go away.
What is changing, he added, is the "cottage industry" of individual faculty members creating their own courses and exams on a scale that is no longer cost-effective, given the availability of Internet-based courses.
A CLASS SIZE OF ONE
But on the other end, Haeger said a new "personalized learning" initiative for older, working students that draws on the "core competencies" of existing courses will be self-paced and offered only online. Three degrees -- liberal arts, small business administration and computer information technology -- will be offered initially, and students will pay a flat rate of $2,500 every six months, no matter how many course units they complete.
When an audience questioner pointed out that the off-campus courses were developed without faculty consultation and would not be eligible for credit in the host departments, Haeger blamed the disconnect on a "speeded up" process of course creation to meet the conditions of a $1 million foundation grant.
The faculty senate, said Senate President Allen Reich from the audience, is working with the Extended Campuses program to develop standards for the personalized learning curriculum.
Haeger announced he has added more money to the technology innovation fund, which pays faculty up to $6,000 apiece to develop new courses that blend traditional and new approaches to teaching.
Haeger had planned to show a live, televised presentation on new classroom technology by three professors located elsewhere on campus. But the audio feed came in garbled, and Haeger gave up after an awkward few minutes.
"We're still working to find out what happened," said a university spokesman after Haeger ended the forum about 15 minutes early.