Grad students question online education

As Yale contemplates new initiatives in online education, graduate students are seeking ways to participate in the University discussion.

At December’s faculty meeting, the Ad Hoc Yale College Committee on Online Education presented a report suggesting possible routes the University could take to expand online, including offering for-credit courses to Yale undergraduates and the public during the academic year and expanding online offerings during the summer. Members of the Graduate Student Assembly have criticized the report for failing to include graduate student input and have raised questions about the potential ramifications of new policies on the teaching fellows program.

“A lot of graduate students are in charge of discussion sections. … They’re managing the environment where the students create knowledge by talking to each other and engaging in conversation with each other,” said Ksenia Sidorenko GRD ’15, who is leading the effort to discuss online education through the GSA. “It’s not yet clear how these proposals are going to be developed and whether graduate students are going to be consulted.”

While some students are excited about having more opportunities to use new technologies, Lauren Tilton GRD ’16, chair of the Graduate Student Assembly, said others are concerned about their teaching fellow positions if sections take place online instead of in a classroom.

Bill Rando, director of the Yale Teaching Center and a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Online Education, said the committee considered graduate student feedback along with input from faculty members and other students while formulating its report, but he added that he hopes there will be more discussion on graduate students’ role in the broader question of online education.

“The committee report emphasized one point overall — that whatever Yale does in online education should enhance what we do in our live classes,” Rando said. “Nowhere is this more true than in the roles and experiences we provide for our TFs. It won’t be easy, but we’ve got to do it.”

If Yale begins offering section online, Rando said the Yale Teaching Center will make a concerted effort to train graduate students to lead online sections that are as engaging as those held in a classroom. Lucas Swineford, director of digital media and dissemination at the Yale Broadcast & Media Center, said his office will work with the Yale Teaching Center to develop a set of “best practices” for teachers and teaching fellows for online courses. Swineford added that these technology skills will also help graduate students entering the job market.

Sidorenko said she is concerned that some plans to expand online will reduce direct classroom interaction, which will harm both graduate students and undergraduates.

“I think it’s one thing to supplement the kind of education you get in a seminar with an online forum,” Sidorenko said. “But making the full experience about an online forum and losing face-to-face interaction, I think, will have terrible consequences.”

Graduate students interviewed had mixed opinions about teaching over the Internet.

One graduate student, who led an online section and who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about criticizing a professor with whom he worked, said he does not think the online format was a positive experience for himself or for the students.

“You lose the pulse of conversation when you go online,” he said. “If everyone can meet in a room together, why would you not promote that?”

Yale College Dean Mary Miller announced the Ad Hoc Yale College Committee on Online Education in a Sept. 21, 2012 email to the Yale community.

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