If the world of higher education is moving faster and inexorably toward primarily a web-based curriculum, what's the role of a bricks-and-mortar campus?
That's a question of considerable interest not only on NAU's 18,000-student Mountain Campus but also to its host community, Flagstaff.
A year ago, the issue might not have seemed so pressing -- so-called MOOCs (or Massive Open Online Courses) were in the experimental phase at only a few universities and NAU itself continued to be a leader in developing new online teaching tools.
But that was then. The recent formation of a consortium by this country's leading research universities to partner with an education technology company that has pioneered MOOCs sets up the next stage: awarding course credit at NAU for a MOOC taught by a professor at another institution.
As outlined Monday by NAU President John Haeger at a campus forum, freshman and sophomore students might take foundational courses on the Internet before they ever arrive on the Mountain Campus. Communities of web learners would form around a course on Facebook or other social media, helping each other solve problems and critiquing each other's work without needing further instructional help.
Senior NAU faculty who now teach survey courses might instead focus on upper-level classroom seminars with more time for research.
Skeptics doubt, however, that MOOCs are really a teaching tool, calling them an assembly line delivery system for information but not for learning and critical thinking. A remote, online teacher, no matter how skilled in presenting a lecture or lab exercise, can't possibly extend to tens of thousands of students the same feedback and assessment he and his campus teaching assistants would give to a hundred.
The middle option is to take the best of the Web, such as interactive, self-paced math teaching modules, and blend them with classroom teaching focused on problem-solving and critical thinking that comes only with face-to-face interaction.
For Haeger and other state university officials facing declining public subsidies and rising enrollment, the MOOCs no doubt offer a tempting way to teach and award credit to many more students with fewer foundational professors.
And if students can demonstrate a mastery of basic competencies in specific fields before even setting foot on campus, then the time spent by faculty developing and teaching introductory courses can be redirected to the juniors and seniors who complete the MOOCs and elect to come to a campus like Flagstaff.
Ultimately, though, higher education must grapple with the larger issue of what a degree from a particular university means if half of the credits are obtained elsewhere.
Further, if foundational competencies can be acquired via MOOCs, when will the next level of more sophisticated, interactive MOOC courses arrive that can deliver competencies in upper-level engineering, computer science or English literature that are perfectly acceptable to some types of employers, but not others? Will that create two types of university degrees -- one with MOOC credits and the other without?
It's certainly too soon to tell how the MOOC phenomenon will play out, although one institution, the University of Southern California, has already said it won't participate or award any credit for MOOC courses.
But with the Internet and social media already established as platforms for the widespread dissemination of information at all levels of society, Haeger and NAU are right to ramp up the conversation on MOOCs and their role in a heretofore place-based learning environment.
Flagstaff, as part of the town-gown equation, certainly has a vested interest in how it ultimately turns out, and we hope that local leaders are included in the discussion.