Yale reexamines role in online education

Several online education platforms that provide free course content from a host of partner universities, including Stanford, Harvard and Princeton, have exploded in global popularity over the past year. Even with its own long-established programs, Yale has refrained thus far from joining those new ventures.

Now, administrators plan to reexamine how the University approaches online course offerings. On Friday, Yale College Dean Mary Miller announced the formation of a committee on online education in an email to faculty members. Committee members will consider the future of Yale’s online courses by analyzing national trends and collecting feedback on the University’s current offerings: Open Yale Courses and Yale Summer Session Online.

“Given what is happening around the country, I hope that the committee can explore whether there are ways to continue to expand the number of students around the country and the world who could benefit from the outstanding teaching of Yale faculty without diminishing the experience for our matriculated Yale College students or diverting the efforts of the faculty,” Miller wrote in the Friday email.

Psychology professor and committee co-chair Paul Bloom said he hopes its members, who met for the first time on Friday afternoon, can submit recommendations to Miller by the end of 2012. Music professor Craig Wright, Bloom’s fellow co-chair, said the committee will discuss a variety of new options for digital education at Yale, including partnerships with existing online education platforms and an expansion of online for-credit courses to the academic year.

Outgoing University President Richard Levin told the News in August that online education policy will be one of the biggest challenges faced by his successor. In advance of that transition, the new committee will attempt to determine what direction Yale will take moving forward.

“Online teaching is getting very big and important,” Bloom said. “[The future of online education at Yale] is a hard problem and the answer is not obvious. We are considering everything we can consider.”

NEW PLATFORMS EMERGE

One online education hub that has garnered significant media attention is Coursera, an interactive online education platform that offers free massive online open courses (MOOCs) from many universities and reached 1.3 million globally since launching six months ago. Coursera, which was named one of Time Magazine’s Best 50 Websites in 2012, announced last Wednesday an expansion from 16 international partner institutions to 33, including Brown, Columbia, Penn and Princeton.

Daphne Koller, Coursera co-founder and a computer science professor at Stanford, said the increasing demand for higher education worldwide and the site’s ability to share technology among universities will help the start-up to keep growing. She said Coursera’s model provides “benefits” not possible through Yale’s individual school format, including the opportunity to collaborate with other universities about course content and technological advances in digital education.

“We are at a point where the technology is really right and mature enough that we can provide a high quality education through an electronic medium,” Koller explained. “Universities gain a tremendous amount from the ability to interact with peer institutions in a changing [online space].”

Koller declined to comment on whether Coursera has been in communication with administrators at Yale.

EdX, another popular online higher education hub, was launched by Harvard and MIT in May. UC Berkeley has since joined the initiative, which recorded 155,000 registrations for its first course that ended in June, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal this month.

As opportunities in online education continue to evolve, universities across the country are exploring the best ways to utilize online education. In August, Stanford created the position of vice provost for online learning and appointed computer science professor John C. Mitchell to the job. The role, Mitchell said, is designed to help faculty experiment with online learning opportunities that are currently offered across the university’s three platforms: Coursera, Class2Go and VentureLab.

“The potential to improve education through these tools is tremendous, but it remains to be seen where we will end up over time,” Mitchell explained.

A LONG HISTORY

While other universities’ online initiatives have received more attention as of late, the University’s new committee has a long history of digital education at Yale to draw upon in considering its future direction.

“Coursera and EdX have captured attention because they are presented as something new,” said Diana Kleiner, founding project director and principal investigator for Open Yale Courses and a member of the new committee. “Yale has been a leader in this field for over a decade. It has to take stock of where it is and decide where it wants to go.”

The University became an early leader in online education when it launched the Alliance for Lifelong Learning (AllLearn) in partnership with Stanford and Oxford in 2001. Kleiner said the project, which was funded by Yale, aimed to provide programming to alumni at a low cost. Although administrators hoped to expand the program to the general public, they were unable to develop a sustainable business model. When initiative was discontinued in 2006, AllLearn President Kristin Kim said 11,000 students from at least 70 countries had taken courses.

Later that year, Kleiner launched Open Yale Courses with financial independence from the University through a grant from William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The project has expanded from seven courses in 2007 to 42 in 2012. As of this April, the website had received more than 3.2 million unique visitors from almost every country in the world.

In the summer of 2011, Yale launched its first online courses for undergraduate credit through Yale Summer Session Online, which Wright mentioned as an initiative that could warrant expansion in the future. High interest levels and positive feedback from professors and students encouraged Yale to expand the online offerings to eight classes in the summer of 2012, and Dean of Summer Session and Special Programs William Whobrey said he anticipates the University will offer about 12 online courses next summer.

Wright, who taught “How to Listen to Classical Music” during Yale Summer Session Online in 2012, called the program a “complete game changer” for online education that was “radically different” from what other universities are offering, as it brings students and professors together in real time. In his class, students spending the summer in Turkey, China, Paris, London and Washington D.C. came together online to sing major scales.

Wright said he expects the committee’s work will be only a first step in determining Yale’s future in digital education.

“The issues are many and they are complex,” he said in an email. “This is an ongoing process, and although this may be Yale’s first faculty committee of this sort, likely it will not be the last.”

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