UP CLOSE | Rethinking the Yale education

Art history and classics professor Diana Kleiner stands at the front of a lecture hall and gestures to the cracked wall of the Roman Coliseum. Her audience? Maybe someone surfing the Internet in South Korea, or a high school teacher devising a classics curriculum in Indiana, or a Yale student who slept through class this morning.

That is because anyone with Internet access can watch Kleiner’s “Roman Architecture” lectures, along with 25 other popular Yale classes, for free on the Open Yale Courses website.

People used to have to apply and be accepted to get a Yale education. But as the University moves into the modern era, and as gaining admission to Yale College has become more competitive than ever, Yale has opened its doors — both cyber and physical — to people who would not have fit under the definition of a “Yale student” in the past.

Kleiner, who is the director of Open Yale Courses, said her project is one way Yale makes its resources available to teachers at other institutions and to people who do not have access to higher education. Yale also invites influential mid-career professionals to campus, offering them tailored leadership training in the hope of effecting global change, University President Richard Levin said.

As Yale has increasingly focused on internationalization, administrators have toyed with the idea of accepting the most qualified applicants to the College regardless of nationality, Levin said, allowing the student body to become a “mirror of the international population.”

But he said he thinks Yale College would be less appealing to international students if it were to lose its American character. Although some of Yale’s graduate and professional schools essentially practice world-blind admissions, the same philosophy would not work for undergraduates, Levin said.

“A liberal arts education is a maturation process, with dimensions outside the classroom,” he said. “For now, this model is distinctively American, and works best with a majority of American students.”

Although the University will continue to rely on a liberal arts model to educate students, reading the classics will not take precedence over paying attention to global events and concerns in modern Yale classrooms, administrators said. Yale has been training leaders for centuries, Levin said, but for a Yale education to have value in a globalized world, it must include foreign perspectives and address international problems. With that in mind, administrators have started thinking about how a Yale education can go beyond a Yale degree.

‘THE KIND OF OPPORTUNITY WE TAKE FOR GRANTED’

Yale aims to raise its international profile by sharing its vast resources with as many people as possible, Kleiner said. The Open Yale Courses project, she said, helps the University to fulfill this obligation.

“I hope it makes a difference in terms of democratizing knowledge around the world,” she said. “As more students apply to institutions like Yale and the numbers of acceptances go down, it makes good sense to make some of this available, since we can’t take all the students.”

Some of the people who access OYC would never even think of applying to Yale, Kleiner added. She said she receives letters from housewives and other users who were not able to go to college, thanking her for giving them a comparable academic experience.

Yale is currently refining OYC technology to make it easier for other educators to incorporate Yale lectures into their classes, Kleiner said. Already, Yale’s partner universities in Mexico, Ghana, Turkey, Bahrain and a host of other countries assign OYC videos as homework or show snippets of lectures during class. Two Yale representatives went to a conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, in March to discuss how OYC could benefit top African universities.

One high school teacher in Ecuador who contacted Kleiner said he uses problem sets and lectures from Professor Ramamurti Shankar’s “Fundamentals of Physics” lecture to teach 11th and 12th graders.

Cecilia d’Oliveira runs the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s online course material project, OpenCourseWare, which was created in 1999, eight years before OYC. She said the courses have both academic and practical uses: MIT heard from several men in Haiti who used one of their lectures on microelectronics to teach themselves how to wire solar panels.

MIT’s online initiatives precipitated the OYC program, but OYC takes a different approach, Levin said. While MIT seeks to put up partial course materials including problem sets, syllabi and partial video clips for as many classes as possible, and now has 1,800 courses on its site, Yale makes available semester-long lecture series in their entirety.

The Harvard University Extension School, founded 100 years ago to make the university’s resources available to people within commuting distance of its campus, recently introduced an online option, Harvard Extension’s Associate Dean for IT and Chief Technology Officer Henry Leitner said. As a result, an increasing number of students across the United States and in foreign countries have begun to enroll, he said, but the school’s focus is still on fostering relationships with locals. Unlike MIT and Yale online users, Harvard Extension students can receive course credit, and are required to participate in discussions, hand in problem sets and take exams, Leitner said.

D’Oliveira said it does not make sense to compare accrediting programs like Harvard Extension with Yale and MIT’s online initiatives.

“We all fit into the ecosystem of ever-widening access to information,” she said. “But what we provide is more equivalent to a virtual library of education materials. It’s like the difference between going to a local community college and registering for a course, or deciding to study on your own.”

THE LEADERS OF TODAY

In addition to expanding its online presence, the University aims to raise its international profile by targeting and educating small groups of emerging leaders. The University invites these leaders to Yale for programs ranging in length from a week to a semester for those poised to make a difference in business, politics, health and other areas.

George Joseph, assistant secretary at the Office of International Affairs, said these programs help Yale affect the leaders of today, while traditional degree programs focus on the leaders of tomorrow.

“Yale makes an investment in training the leadership of the next 20 or 30 years,” he said, “but now we can also think about the leadership of the next two or three years.”

By educating current policy-makers and power players, it is possible to effect change from the top down, said Betsy Bradley, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health and director of its Global Health Initiatives, which seek to research and facilitate better health care practices in developing countries.

Last year, Bradley launched a leadership training program within the institute, inviting health officials from several countries to campus for brainstorming sessions and discussions with Yale faculty last June, and working with them to implement ideas on the ground in the months that followed. Bradley said she tried to choose health leaders who would be open to discussion, and who had proved they were willing to listen to the voices of the communities they serve.

Bradley said Yale can maximize its impact by focusing on people who are already in positions of power.

“These people already have some leverage,” she said.

‘A BILATERAL EXCHANGE’

To become effective leaders, Yale students need to be exposed to foreign cultures and learn how to approach an issue from different perspectives, administrators said.

That philosophy partially inspired the creation of the World Fellows program — through which 14 to 18 rising leaders in a range of disciplines come to Yale for a semester to study — in 2001, program director Michael Cappello said. Fellows deliver talks and Master’s Teas, and act as a resource for Yale students interested in their respective fields, Cappello said.

Invited practitioners are often expected to advise students or help them obtain internships abroad, while undergraduate and graduate students also have a hand in introducing visitors to Yale. Joseph runs an annual program for young, promising members of the Indian parliament, the agenda for which is partly written by students.

Joseph said practitioners also benefit from time spent with Yale students.

“The participants look at Yale as a place where a disproportionate number of graduates will go on to positions of leadership,” he said. “They want to be able to access the future thought leadership of the world. It’s a bilateral exchange.”

Bradley, for her part, sends students abroad to work with health officials in other countries, and this year she started a seminar called “Strategic Thinking in Global Health,” which discusses many of the issues plaguing GHI’s partner countries, Bradley said.

FINDING A NICHE

Yale was not the first American university to launch programs for world leaders, but has done so in a very different way than its competitors, Levin said.

The Harvard Kennedy School of Government, for example, has offered executive education since the 1990s. The Harvard Business School ran its first executive education program in 1945, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania hosted its first in 1953.

In entering this field, Yale deliberately sought a niche not yet filled by its competitors, Levin said. Unlike Harvard and Penn, which have larger professional schools, Yale does not have the capacity to host large, general-admission programs for professionals. Instead, Yale runs small programs but invites higher level participants than the ones who usually attend competitors’ programs, Levin said.

Joseph said Yale is able to attract the upper echelons of international leadership because the University customizes programs to meet the specific needs of participants. A member of the Chinese government, for example, might take a week to discuss questions relevant to China, but is unlikely to enroll in a program that discusses public policy more generally, he said.

Yale’s programs are unique in that they bring a liberal arts approach to executive education, Joseph said. Whereas Penn’s business programs draw only on Wharton School faculty, and Harvard’s government programs draw only on Kennedy School faculty, Yale’s programs are run out of the Office of International Affairs, not one school, and pull faculty experts from the University as a whole.

“If you’re going to be a leader, you need to be broadly trained,” Joseph said. “You might be a trade specialist, but you still need some awareness of economics, health issues, foreign policy and religious issues. Coming to Yale to spend a week talking about trade may not be the best use of your time. It’s better to be exposed to things you’ve never been exposed to.”

FACE TO FACE?

The University has continued to add programs over the past decade, but these initiatives are meant to complement, not replace, Yale’s traditional programs.

“We don’t ever want to pull Yale faculty out of the classroom for this,” said Joseph, the assistant secretary at the Office of International Affairs.

Levin said leadership programs will continue to connect Yale’s campus with the rest of the world, but are not in danger of pulling funding or focus from enrolled students. Most of the sessions are funded by grants or private donors, not by the University, he said. The Yale China Law Center, for example, runs a program about legal reform for senior government officials and is partially funded by the Chinese government.

While Yale seems wholly capable of running its new executive education programs and its traditional schools side by side, it is impossible to predict how the Internet will change the University in the long run, Levin said. He said he thinks it is important for Yale to take advantage of new media to reach a larger national and international audience, but does not think online education could replace older models.

“Face-to-face communication is extremely important in enriching education,” he said. “There are those who will say that I’m just a dinosaur, and young people today communicate over the Internet and cell phones and don’t need to be face-to-face, but I’m not totally convinced.”

Although they have discussed the possibility, administrators have not opted to offer credit for online lectures because they feel the personal maturation encouraged by a residential model is essential to the University’s mission, Levin said.

School of Management professor Douglas Rae, who also teaches undergraduate courses, once recorded a lecture when he couldn’t make it to a class. But he said he thinks some of the best parts of the classroom experience cannot be conveyed over video. Experienced teachers learn to read their students’ faces — even in a large lecture — and adjust material to engage them, he said.

“There’s a feeling when a class is zinging, and everybody is really keyed into the subject,” he said. “That’s what it ought to be about. I don’t know how you’d replicate that online.”

D’Oliveira said she thinks the capacity to put lectures online might make professors re-evaluate what they need to teach in person, and what can as easily be conveyed via technology. Maybe it is not unreasonable for students to prefer to watch lectures on their computers, from their own beds, she added.

Still, although she said she thinks online education could become the norm in countries like India and China, where it is almost impossible to build enough college campuses to accommodate the population, she thinks modern technology will have less effect in America.

“These online resources make for a richer learning environment,” she said, “but I think MIT and Yale will be around a long time and look pretty much the same.”

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