Yale pushes online frontier

Three Yale Summer Session professors taught their course material not only to students in New Haven, but also to their classmates thousands of miles away.

For the first time this summer, Yale Summer Session offered three online courses, two of them for Yale credit, in which students watched recorded lectures and joined live discussion sections with their professors and online classmates via video chat. With “uniformly positive” feedback from students and faculty, the University is now looking to expand this summer’s program for next summer, though Yale Summer Session Dean William Whobrey said there are no plans to use the technology during the academic year.

“Many of our peer institutions have launched similar initiatives,” Whobrey said in an email to the News. “Our goal for this past summer was to launch a limited pilot program that could serve as an experimental platform to prove various concepts of online learning in a Yale environment.”

Higher education experts have long wondered how the internet will change institutions like Yale — online content can expand a school’s reach across demographics and continents, but it subtly alters the definition of a “student” in the process. While the taped lectures and accompanying materials on Open Yale Courses are free for the public to use at any time, the summer courses required students — both inside and outside of the Yale community — to be online for mandatory class sessions. Like Summer Session courses offered on campus, the online courses cost $3,000 each. Like other Yale Summer Session courses, the online offerings were open to students from beyond the Yale community — participants included an undergraduate from Skidmore College and a graduate student from the University of Chicago.

Whobrey said that, since this summer’s courses received positive reviews from students and faculty, he hopes that more courses across all subjects will be offered online next summer. He will present a report on this summer’s programming to the Course of Study Committee and the entire Faculty of Arts and Sciences this fall.

University President Richard Levin said this summer’s online offerings could be a step towards an expanded online presence for Yale in the future, with effects far beyond New Haven, but added that it is too soon to say.

“In the long run, I think it could grow to not only Yale students but also the wider public,” he said. “But we’ll take it step by step and see the reaction we’re getting.”

Other universities such as Harvard make credit-granting online courses available to continuing education students and others not enrolled in traditional degree programs. Yale’s only previous foray into online seminars occurred from 1999 to 2006, when the University, along with Stanford and Oxford, offered courses through an Alliance for Lifelong Learning for anyone interested in the courses and willing to pay fees around $300.

This summer’s pilot consisted of three courses: music professor Craig Wright’s “Brains of Genius: Mozart and Friends,” political science professor Ellen Lust’s “Introduction to Middle East Politics,” and economics professor Donald Brown’s “Computational Finance.” But because the courses were advertised late last semester, there were not enough students enrolled to give Yale credit for Wright’s course, which began in late May, so the online section of it was ultimately offered for free, and most of the students were Yale faculty and staff rather than undergraduates.

Wright and Lust both expressed enthusiasm for the new program and said they hoped it would continue next summer. Before their courses began, both said they worried that the unconventional classroom discussion might not meet the high standard required for a Yale course, but they said the technology allowed them to engage students in almost the same way as a face-to-face discussion.

“I was skeptical if students could get as much out of it online, but I was convinced by the end of it that they do,” Lust said. “What’s interesting about online classes is that you can’t hide in the back. When asked to engage, you have to do it, and it’s easy to tell who is participating and what they know.”

In some cases, Whobrey said, the online courses had unforeseen benefits: Lust was able to lead class while traveling in Nairobi, Kenya and bring in guest lecturers from across the globe.

All four students interviewed said the course maintained the quality and rigor of a class on Yale’s campus. Sam Bernstein ’14, a varsity golf player who took Lust’s course as he competed in golf tournaments across the country and in Scotland, said Lust’s class required even more work than most courses at Yale.

“It almost raised the bar for what a Yale class should be,” he said.

Assistant Secretary in the Office of the President Erin Johnson ’08, who took Wright’s course, said while nothing could ever completely replicate a real classroom discussion, the technology sometimes encouraged innovative conversation-starters. For example, students used camera phones to take pictures of an illustration assignment and sent them in emails to the entire group.

But Wright said there is still room for improvement. The University should make clear that students are expected to work as hard as they would in a normal course, he said. Several of Wright’s ten students, an experimental group of mostly Yale employees, did not finish the course, and Lust said three of her 11 withdrew. Brown’s course only had five online enrollees.

Daniel Friedman ’15 completed Lust’s course, but said he wished he had been given more information about how the class would work before he signed on.

“This is not something you do in your pajamas after dinner,” Wright said. “Somehow this message has to be put across to people.”

Three of the students interviewed said they expected the courses would become more effective as professors became more comfortable with the technology.

The online Summer Session options used the Pearson eCollege Learning Management System, a standard platform used for online education.

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