Cautiously, Yale moves online

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Andrew Ng, a computer science professor at Stanford University, has over one million students.

Ng — who is also the co-founder of Coursera, one of the world’s largest Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms — has been a pioneer in the rapidly evolving field of online education. In 2011, Coursera’s inaugural year, over 100,000 students around the world participated in Ng’s MOOC course entitled “Machine Learning” from their computer screens.

The MOOC system is one of many ways the field of online education continues to grow and change. Yale Teaching Center Director Bill Rando called the field of online education a “moving target” as new technologies and discoveries continuously push the field in new directions.

In response to recent advances in the field, Yale College Dean Mary Miller convened an ad hoc Yale College Committee on Online Education in September to recommend ways the University can evaluate and expand its online presence. The committee’s report recommends Yale College continue increasing its existing online programs — including its for-credit online summer program — and suggests that the University “investigate” new vehicles for online dissemination of knowledge, including Massive Open Online Course platforms, though it does not recommend adopting a specific platform immediately.

In the past, Yale has engaged in ambitious but carefully planned expansions of its online presence, notably demonstrated in the Open Yale Courses project — which makes some of the University’s most popular lectures available for the public to stream over the Internet. Despite its history at the forefront of online education, though, Yale is one of three Ivy League schools not yet affiliated with the MOOC movement.

“There may be a liability in moving too quickly in a landscape that is changing so very rapidly,” said music professor Craig Wright, a co-chair of the Committee on Online Education.

As the University considers new ways to make its educational resources available online, faculty members and administrators have chosen to proceed carefully, while some professors question what an increased online presence will mean for traditional classroom education.

 

THE CUTTING EDGE?

When the committee’s report was released in December, psychology professor and committee co-chair Paul Bloom said Yale has historically been a leader in the field and would continue to “move forward building upon the strengths we’ve already established.”

In 2000, Yale formed the Alliance for Lifelong Learning (AllLearn) with Stanford University and the University of Oxford. For a small fee, the program enrolled over 10,000 people in the 110 online courses — but financial struggles forced the universities to disband AllLearn in 2006.

History of art professor Diana Kleiner, who had spearheaded the AllLearn initiative at Yale, said she and University President Richard Levin decided it was important for the University to remain a key player in online education after AllLearn was discontinued. Later that year, the University announced the Open Yale Courses initiative, which Kleiner — who now directs Open Yale Courses — said aims to provide people throughout the world with the opportunity to audit the same courses students take in New Haven and to allow the University’s educational endeavors to reach a broader audience.

Though other universities such as MIT already provided some online course materials, with Open Yale Courses, Yale became the first to provide constant lecture feeds from inside its classrooms. Since lectures went online in 2007, Kleiner added, the website has received over 6 million unique visitors, while the videos on iTunes U and YouTube have been accessed over 30 million times.

But in the last two years, many of Yale’s peer institutions have adopted a new approach to online education — the MOOC.

The term “MOOC” was first coined in 2008, and the movement rapidly grew into a partnership of 33 universities from eight different countries. Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Brown and Columbia have partnered with Coursera, and Harvard and MIT launched their own MOOC platform, edX, in fall 2012. Cornell, the only Ivy League besides Yale and Dartmouth not yet affiliated with a MOOC platform, told the journal Inside Higher Ed on Jan. 29 that it will announce a MOOC partnership in the next few weeks.

Participants must sign up for MOOC courses, which last an average of five to 10 weeks and generally adhere to the format of 10- to 20-minute lecture segments followed by a brief assessment. MOOCs do not yet carry institutionalized academic credit in any university, though they do grant certifications upon completion.

The MOOCs’ aim to open global educational access is similar to that of Open Yale Courses, Wright said, but MOOCs have a more modular and interactive structure that emphasizes mastery of discrete concepts.

Members of the Committee on Online Education said they wanted to take the time to assess possible options before committing the University to a specific platform.

“The MOOC is just one component of an online education strategy,” said Lucas Swineford, a committee member and the director of the Yale Broadcast and Media Center. “This is an area where we wanted to take our time because we had such a great history and make sure any decision we made was going to support current and future ambitions.”

Miller said Yale has been innovating in a different direction from the MOOCs, focusing on interactive seminar-style online courses offered for credit over the summer. The courses occur in real time, and enrollment is capped at around 20 students already enrolled in Yale Summer Session. Following what committee member and psychology professor Laurie Santos called the “great success” of last year’s 10 summer courses, the University will offer four additional online for-credit courses this summer. The committee also encouraged the University to consider establishing for-credit online courses during the semester.

Despite the focus on other online ventures, Swineford said the committee will present a recommendation to the University president and provost about a MOOC partnership in the upcoming weeks.

 

TRANSFORMING EDUCATION ONLINE AND ON CAMPUS

Daphne Koller, one of the co-founders of Coursera, said the goals of MOOCs are twofold — to provide open educational opportunities to the rest of the world and to change the way professors think about in-class instruction.

Most Yale professors interviewed expressed enthusiasm about extending the University’s educational resources to the rest of the world.

“I’m proud to be part of something that brought people back into the life of the mind,” said history professor John Merriman, who put two lecture courses, “European Civilization, 1648–1945” and “France Since 1871” on Yale Open Courses. “We have reached thousands and thousands of people through these [open] courses, and that’s exciting.”

Koller said she envisioned online education as a “fulcrum” to move in-class education away from the traditional lecture format and toward a more discussion-based format through techniques such as “flipping” the class by assigning lectures posted online as homework.

But professors interviewed expressed concern over transforming what they called an “ancient” method of education.

“The online courses are a wonderful supplement to what goes on in the classroom, but they’re not a replacement for them,” history professor Frank Snowden said. “I don’t think it would be a positive step forward to do anything that made the live interaction between students and professors less personal, less direct and less intimate.”

English professor Amy Hungerford said even with today’s technology, she does not think the lecture format has become obsolete because the experience of learning simultaneously with peers is an important aspect of the college experience.

“Do you lose something by not being together in the same room experiencing the same discussion that then radiates out to students walking back to their rooms or having dinner in [their] dining hall?” she said. “Is there enough of a shared experience when you only have section?”

Jonathan Holloway, a professor of history and African-American studies, said that while the University will have to assess its place in the context of advances in online education, he thinks “the jury is still out” on which methods he thinks the University should employ.

But committee member and psychology professor June Gruber said she is enthusiastic about the University’s approach to examining its online presence.

“I think Yale has simply employed a thoughtful, thorough approach to systematically investigate all possible MOOC options before making any commitments,” Gruber said. “We care a lot about this new wave of education, and want to make sure we’re doing the best possible job upholding the same standards of traditional brick-and-mortar Yale education while moving it into the realm of the Internet.”

 

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