Faculty consider online education

Nearly every seat in Connecticut Hall was filled at Thursday’s Yale College faculty meeting in which professors discussed expanding Yale’s online presence.

At the meeting, the ad hoc Committee on Online Education, chaired by psychology professor Paul Bloom and music professor Craig Wright, presented a report to the faculty that recommended ways in which the University could expand online and allow the public to benefit from Yale’s resources and teaching. The committee’s report suggests the College offer for-credit courses to Yale undergraduates and the public during the academic year and encourages faculty members to make their course materials publicly available. Wright said the meeting was a blend of curiosity and enthusiasm and that he was excited that faculty members seemed engaged with the topic.

“I found it — as someone [who has gone] to Yale faculty meetings for 40 years — an exhilarating experience and an exhilarating discussion,” Wright said. “We were actually talking about the essence of what education is about — what we teach and how we learn.”

Though Wright said faculty members raised many detailed questions, he added that he did not sense hostility to the committee’s recommendations. Yale College Dean Mary Miller said discussion of the report was lively and lasted nearly 50 minutes.

The meeting began with a presentation of the report by Bloom before opening up for discussion. Psychology professor and committee member Laurie Santos said she thought the thoroughness of Bloom’s presentation allowed faculty members to consider the different online formats suggested in the report that best related to their teaching styles and subject matter.

“I think one of the pleasant surprises was just how excited folks seemed at the idea that there are many different kind of online tools,” Santos said. “It seemed like different faculty picked upon different aspects.”

The committee’s report was circulated two days before the meeting, in accordance with the rules governing faculty meetings established last month. Professors interviewed prior to Thursday’s meeting expressed mixed opinions about the report’s recommendations — some said they were enthusiastic about Yale’s expansion into new media, but others said they did not think the Yale classroom experience could be replicated online.

Near Eastern languages and civilizations professor Benjamin Foster GRD ’75 said he personally would never offer his course online, but that he was supportive of his colleagues who chose to participate in online education.

The recommended online courses would follow the format of the 10 online summer courses Yale offered in 2011 and 2012, which were capped at 20 students each. Students in these courses interacted via live video stream and through a chat function that allowed them to communicate with each other, and privately with the professor, during the class.

The report also suggests faculty members experiment with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), free online lecture courses to anyone who signs up. Though many of Yale’s peer institutions, including Harvard, Princeton and Stanford have embraced MOOC platforms such as Coursera and EdX, the report does not recommend that Yale commit to a specific platform.

In a Tuesday interview, classics professor Victor Bers said he was concerned about the long-term effects of increasing online education, and said his style of teaching would not lend itself to an online format.

“There is a good part of [teaching] which I think requires eye-to-eye contact and the closer experience of being in the classroom,” Bers said.

At the meeting, faculty also considered a proposal by Foster to extend membership in the Yale College faculty meetings to nonladder faculty who have taught at the University for 10 or more semesters. Foster presented his argument, but the motion was voted down.

Yale College faculty meetings are held on the first Thursday of every month.

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