Committee proposes online courses

In a report released Tuesday, the ad hoc Yale College Committee on Online Education recommended the University offer online for-credit courses to undergraduates and the public during the academic year.

The final report issued to Yale College Dean Mary Miller details the committee’s findings and recommendations for the University’s development of an online education program. The committee, led by psychology professor Paul Bloom and music professor Craig Wright, convened in September to assess and consider ways to expand Yale’s online educational presence so that non-Yale students can benefit from Yale resources and teaching. The recommendations from this report will be discussed at Thursday’s Yale College faculty meeting.

“Yale has this mission — the creation, preservation and dissemination of knowledge. This is dissemination,” Bloom said. “We’re extremely excited for the use of digital initiatives to disseminate knowledge and we plan to move forward building upon the strengths we’ve already established.”

The report also separately encourages faculty members to experiment with making their course materials public on a larger scale such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), which provide free online lecture courses to anyone who signs up — a platform embraced by a number of Yale’s peer institutions. Miller said the University is proceeding carefully in the realm of online education, and therefore not committing to a certain program.

Professors interviewed had mixed reactions to the effectiveness of online education, and students interviewed said they were unlikely to take a course with section that met online over a course that met in person.

Bloom said the online for-credit platform will expose students to new technologies while enabling them to learn in a classroom setting with students across the globe, though he added that the committee does not recommend students enroll in more than one online course during their Yale education. Students studying abroad will also benefit from the program since they will be able to fulfill requirements while off-campus, he said.

The online courses would follow the template of ten online summer courses Yale offered in 2011 and 2012 that were open to the public and limited to 20 students each. Participants attended the classes via live video stream and interacted with the professor and one another over the video stream. The course technology also included a chat function, in which students could type to each other or privately to the instructor during the session.

Bloom said online courses will be held to the same standard as courses held on-campus and that the Course Selection Committee will vet them extensively. Course admission will be conducted through an application process, he said, and non-Yale students who would like to apply will face the same admissions standards as enrolled undergraduates.

Psychology professor and committee member Laurie Santos taught her popular lecture course “Sex, Evolution & Human Nature” this summer by assigning the recorded lectures as homework material and conducting section discussions with 18 students over the video-conferencing technology.

Santos said aspects of the online platform were more “intimate” than her large lecture course because the class was discussion-based. Students who might otherwise not speak in class had the ability to message her their thoughts privately, she added.

“I could actually see students’ private reactions to what was going on in the section in a way I couldn’t in the classroom,” Santos added.

Political science lecturer Jim Sleeper said he is skeptical of the ability to communicate in a discussion over the Internet. He said that he thinks body language and eye contact were essential to successful communication in his past seminars. Sleeper added that he bases his comments on his own experiences teaching seminars, and he has not yet read the report.

Recently, MOOCs have gained attention as an effective way to share university resources on a large scale. MOOCs integrate assessments and peer conversation into courses while also offering recognition upon completion. The evaluation structure of MOOCs is different from that of the courses currently offered by the Open Yale Courses program, which provides free online lecture footage and other limited course materials.

English professor David Kastan said he has been asked to put his lecture course “Shakespeare: Histories and Tragedies” online as part of Open Yale Courses but that he has no plans to participatein any online courses because he does not believe an online format will let him fully communicate with his students.

“MOOCs are a wonderfully efficient way to disseminate needed information, but information isn’t knowledge — knowledge is what happens to information when it is put under the pressure of concentration and reflection,” Kastan said. “MOOCs aren’t good for that.”

Many of Yale’s peer schools have embraced the MOOC format. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology currently offer MOOCs through the platform edX, and Stanford University and Princeton University use the platform Coursera.

While the Committee on Online Education made no formal recommendation to utilize MOOCs, Anant Agarwal, president of edX and a professor at MIT, said he hopes Yale will adopt the MOOC platform and join edX in the future.

“The online movement now continues to go ahead, and the whole MOOC movement is the next step of the evolution,” Agarwal said. He added that with Yale Open Courses’s founding in 2006 Yale was at the forefront of developing open course material, and edX built upon the foundation Yale Open Courses and other similar courseware provided.

Four students interviewed said they would consider taking an online course while on-campus, but four said they would not enroll if they had the option to attend in person.

“I think it would just make me lazier and just not want to do the work,” said Jose Limon ’14, though he added that he would enroll in an online course if the program turns out to work well.

Though Yale and non-Yale students can use the credits towards their undergraduate degrees, the committee recommended that Yale College not offer online degrees. Non-Yale students can use the credits as transfer credits.

Miller announced the ad hoc Yale College Committee on Online Education in a Sept. 21 message to the Yale community.

Nicole Narea contributed reporting.

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