Now on Web, Yale classroom open to public

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Members of the public no longer need a winning admissions essay to watch Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare lectures, which are now available online as streaming video. And soon, anyone with access to the Internet will be able to listen to “Game Theory” lectures on Apple Computer’s iTunes or use Microsoft’s Live Search interface to virtually leaf through out-of-print books housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The Open Educational Resources Video Lecture Project, developed last year and launched this fall, provides online access to popular talks and lectures through iTunes, and the Microsoft-Yale Project, which was announced in September, will digitalize 100,000 rare English-language books by the spring. The initiatives are designed to facilitate students’ research efforts and provide those outside academia a glimpse into the richness of Yale’s scholarly offerings, administrators said.

Most students interviewed said they are not yet familiar with a digitalized learning experience, and many said they are concerned about the advent of “e-learning” because it does not involve direct student-teacher interaction and could cheapen the value of a Yale education. But administrators said they are confident about the potential benefits of the project and think the initiatives would add an additional dimension to students’ real-world interactions with their peers and professors.

Ben Cooke ’08 said he could not imagine why students would watch lectures online when the real thing is available to them in person.

“I don’t really care,” Cooke said. “Do people actually watch this online?”

But while the appeal of extra lectures might not be obvious to current students, online courses allow alumni and even those without any affiliation to the University to get a taste of life in the Elm City. Remy Ray ’11, whose “Ancient Greek History” class is being filmed for broadcast online, said there are currently several auditors in her lecture who she thinks would benefit from the free access to course materials available through the Open Yale Courses project.

“Why should they have to pay when they can just stream it online?” she said. “I think if Yale is serious about being a worldwide leader, they should definitely offer more of its resources to people that don’t have the opportunity to go here.”

Professor Benjamin Polak — whose “Game Theory” class is being filmed this fall to be made available online for future students — said his class is different from other online classes since his students are often involved in lectures, and that interaction has to be conveyed on film. The question-and-answer segments of class discussions present a particular challenge to cameramen, since the microphones must be handed from student to student, he said.

Some of his students behave differently in the presence of a camera, Polak said. While students have generally reacted positively to the cameras, one segment of his class avoids being filmed by sitting in the balcony areas, while most students are more involved since they do not want to appear unprepared on film, he said.

While public users miss out on the sections, office hours and problem sets, Polak said he hopes to bring a part of the college experience to international students and web users in rural areas of the United States, thus providing them with an Ivy League-caliber education.

“I’m an idealist,” he said. “It’s not the full Yale experience, unfortunately, but it’s something.”

Although many students said Yalies will probably gain little from virtual lectures, they agreed that online viewers may derive some benefit from them.

But some students interviewed said they think it is unfair to use part of the $45,000 tuition package they pay each year in order to make classes available to non-Yalies for free.

David Allen ’10, who took political science professor Steven Smith’s “Introduction to Political Philosophy,” which was filmed last fall, said he thinks it would be appropriate to limit the public’s access to Yale resources, just as entry into Sterling Memorial Library after hours is restricted to Yale students.

“Just making everything freely and unconditionally available to the public wouldn’t be very fair to tuition-paying students,” he said.

But Polak said Yale students are not being shortchanged by the programs since the great Yale experience comprises not only classes, but also interaction with fellow intelligent students, which cannot be experienced in front of a computer.

University President Richard Levin said while the online lectures are valuable, the on-campus experience is “much more than that.” Students on campus have the opportunity for personal contact with the lecturer as well as engagement with classmates both within and outside the context of the course, he said.

Still, some students fear that digitalization of classes and books runs the risk of further isolating them from professors, librarians and their peers, much as new technologies such as cell phones and iPods have decreased the need for face-to-face interaction.

“The world is already heading away from personal interaction,” Sam Reinhardt ’10 said. “The online thing only furthers that.”

But Diana Kleiner, history of art professor and principal investigator of the Open Educational Resources Video Lecture Project, said she thinks digital dissemination will broaden, not detract from, a Yale College education.

Since students are already busy with a dizzying array of activities, Kleiner said digitalization of the University’s collections and recordings of special events can help students cram more into their short four-year careers. Now students can catch a special public lecture at the same time as a psychology section, or access pieces of art that they did not know were housed at Yale, she said.

But ultimately, she said, direct exchanges between faculty and students will remain the lifeblood of a Yale education.

“What is special about Yale is that it continues to be, in the 21st century, a close community of teachers and learners,” she said.

Despite the administration’s enthusiasm about Yale’s foray into cyberspace, many students said they feel indifferent about the availability of lectures through the Open Yale Courses project and doubt it will affect their study habits. But some Yalies said they look forward to using books available through the Microsoft-Yale Project resources.

Yale has the second-largest library system in North America, which obliges the University to share its rare collections with the public, University Librarian Alice Prochaska said. In theory, she said, the Microsoft-Yale Project will permit the University to collaborate with other libraries, museums and art institutions across the world by virtually pooling collections of similar material.

Prochaska said many faculty members have wanted the library to digitalize books for years. She said some faculty members already use a library program called the Eli Electronic Initiative to combine coursework with digital materials in teaching. The Microsoft-Yale Project will be an expansion of ELI that allows both professors and students to further enrich their teaching and scholarship experience, she said.

Electronic documents also help students get started on their work by facilitating independent preliminary research online, Prochaska said. Once students have a solid background in their research projects, they can come into the library and ask more informed questions of librarians in person, she said.

Zoe Ballance ’10, who worked at the Beinecke this summer, said word-processed documents can lessen researchers’ appreciation of rare materials, although she is grateful that digitalization will reduce damage to original texts by reducing students’ need to photocopy and handle old and delicate books.

“There’s something special about finding signed copies, first editions, and correspondence letters between Rachel Carson and her illustrators … and reading scrolls that people have read for years,” she said.

Prochaska said she agrees there is no substitute for the original. She said the Microsoft-Yale project will act as a complement to traditional libraries rather than as an alternative version. She said she hopes the Microsoft project will encourage students to seek the original editions in person.

“Once you see the digital, your appetite is enormously enhanced,” she said.

Administrators involved with the Open Educational Resources Video Lecture Project said they aim to provide online access to 30 Yale courses over the next three years.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    I think this is an excellent initiative and Yale is to be sincerely congratulated. I believe it will contribute positively to the perception of the USA as a global citizen by the international community. As an Australian, I think the USA needs to significantly improve how it is perceived internationally.

    For Yale students, such resources provide the advantage of review and catch-up; anytime, anywhere.