LARSON: The online game plan

Nothing in Particular

Over the last year, headlines for more than one of the News’ articles on Yale’s online education efforts have included the word “cautious.” While Stanford, Harvard and MIT have dived headfirst into the world of MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — Yale has only offered four.

Harry Larson_headshot_(David Yu)Yale continues to expand offerings on Open Yale Courses, where anyone can watch videos of lectures, though without the evaluations and other course material that many now expect with an online course. But it has yet to articulate a clear vision of what OYC is supposed to accomplish — or for whom. And while it has dabbled in online Summer Session seminar offerings, it has worked to keep those classes as close to brick-and-mortar ones as is technologically possible, even charging the same price as for on-campus summer courses.

This apparent ambivalence about the role of technology and the Internet in higher education reflects a welcome note of carefulness and skepticism in a debate that often lacks either. There is no shortage of politicians, entrepreneurs and, increasingly, college administrators who eagerly play up the promise of MOOCs, arguing that they will democratize American higher education, enabling the same skills to be taught at a fraction of their former cost. But the evidence of their educational benefits remains scarce. Though often touted as a way of increasing America’s much bemoaned college graduation rates, the reality is that online offerings — far more than physical courses — tend to result in enormous discrepancies between the number of students enrolling and finishing a particular course.

But while Yale is right to be skeptical of the power of unproven techniques to cure all that ails higher education, I wish it would be more ambitious taking advantage of technology within its own classes. In particular, I wonder why, in 2013, such a large portion of our course offerings is comprised of traditional, noninteractive lectures.

Physical lectures may offer some marginal benefits over online versions. They provide structure that videos lack and offer students the opportunity to ask questions. And they maintain a certain interpersonal component. One of my professors this semester often breaks into short tangents in lecture to playfully mock a Teaching Fellow or to ask a student why he was late. He explained to me once that many of his comments — often tossed out with a careless air — are part of a conscious strategy to encourage his students’ active attention and engagement.

Still, none of these arguments really explain why Yale’s approach to lectures hasn’t evolved with technology. While a traditional class may provide some students with structure, for others who regularly miss lectures, online recordings could increase viewership. As for offering a platform for students’ questions, many lectures I’ve been in don’t seem to provide one. Even when lecturers do take questions, the result is often interruptions that most students find irritating and unnecessary. As for the idea that students in a room may be more engaged than those plugged into a laptop — well, that may very well be true. But that brings me to the most exciting aspect of the promise of online lectures. They leave space for professors and students to make better use of their time in the classroom.

Often when people speak of putting lectures online, they seem excited by the notion that students will instead be able to take more seminars. We could learn introductory material on our own time — possibly with the help of TFs — but actually enroll in smaller classes, where we get to discuss material with professors.

But even if that’s not the case — as Yale would need to offer six seminars in order to replace one 90-person lecture — putting lectures online could still greatly improve many courses’ potential. Professors could, for instance, use the time they previously spent preparing and giving lectures to instead lead some of their course’s discussion sections. It wouldn’t be a full seminar experience, but students would still got more frequent opportunities to engage with their professors, while many TFs would likely benefit from the chance to see experienced teaching firsthand.

Alternatively, professors could require students to watch lectures online for homework, and then use class time to field questions, examine certain points in depth and even initiate a large class-wide discussion. Religious studies professor Christine Hayes used precisely that strategy to teach her course on the Old Testament once a recording of a previous year’s version was posted on Open Yale Courses. Student evaluations of the new method were enormously positive.

Online courses are rightly heralded as possible game-changers for the structure of higher education. But even more important is the potential that online material has to improve the quality of our physical classes. It’s time for Yale to make that potential a reality.

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