WRIGHT: The state of online education

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

MOOC mania indeed! MOOCs — massive open online courses — have dominated the national headlines about online higher education. Numerically, however, the new MOOCs constitute only about 10 percent of what is going on in online education today — and at Yale, despite their potential importance, even less than that. So what is happening with online education at Yale?

In his inaugural address on Oct. 13, President Peter Salovey described his priorities. First, the primary mission of the online initiative will be to improve education at Yale. Yes, we will push forward with online education, but take what we learn from the experience to reinvigorate teaching and learning here on campus. In other words, the online engagement can, and should, add value to what has been historically the essence of the Yale educational experience — intense personal engagement and deep critical thinking. The online initiative should be multifarious in its approaches and broadly based, involving all three parts of the University: the professional schools, the Graduate School and Yale College.

This coming summer, with the approval of the Course of Study Committee, there will likely be as many as 17 online courses offered through the Yale Summer Online program, an increase from 12 this past summer. Yale College students constitute 97 percent of those taking those online courses for credit. Equally important, Yale faculty like me who have taught these online courses for credit uniformly concluded that they were as demanding for the students as the regular courses we teach.

During the spring and fall terms, language students are currently enrolled for credit in an innovative program, in conjunction with Columbia and Cornell, for the teaching of language courses with small enrollments, such as on Dutch and Zulu. Wags have deemed such courses SPOCs (small, private, online courses). The success of this initiative suggests that similar consortia might be formed among graduate or professional schools to bring together students online in courses with small enrollments.

Faculty around Yale, such as law professor Akhil Amar, are engaged in exciting online projects. Amar will be using the lecture material developed for his “Constitutional Law” MOOC, launching in January, to enhance his Yale Summer Online course in 2014 as well as his courses on campus. Others, such as Jim Rolf, instructor of Calculus of Functions with One Variable, have built upon a platform developed by Coursera, an educational disseminator with which Yale is partnering. Rolf has done this, not to create a MOOC on Coursera, but rather to reimagine how a basic math course might be conceived and executed at Yale; preliminary student evaluations are highly positive.

Professor Laura Wexler is participating in an online experiment this fall known as a distributed open collaborative course, or DOCC for short. The goal of the DOCC is to recognize the collaborative nature of learning in a digital age. As such, Wexler made available components from her “Gender & Sexuality in Media & Popular Culture” course to faculty members at 14 other institutions. In turn, she herself was able to use components from courses offered at these other schools.

Leaders of HackYale, undergrads Rafi Khan and Zack Reneau-Wedeen, have suggested ways in which online projects might enhance this exciting, experimental program — undergrads teaching undergrads. And grad student Sara Ronis has been working to evaluate the impact of online teaching, and how best practices might be shared with grad students — the college instructors of tomorrow.

Looking beyond Yale College and the Graduate School to the professional schools: Here we see equally innovative examples of faculty implementing online programs that can further the missions of the schools by expanding the numbers of those who benefit from a Yale education. President Salovey in his inauguration also talked about the opportunities to harness new technology to expand the reach of Yale’s great teachers to “more people in more places.”

The School of Nursing now offers a hybrid degree program to healthcare professionals where roughly half of the coursework is completed online; this enables practicing professionals to gain an advanced degree without interrupting their careers.

The School of Forestry and Environmental Studies has offered in-person executive certificate programs for some time, but in 2013 was able to extend the reach of the programs through on-line delivery to “students” who studied in Latin America. And the School of Management is delivering two courses on-line this semester, in which students enrolled in the Global Network for Advanced Management study in a virtual classroom with Yale SOM students.

Soon the School of Medicine will implement a new curriculum that will take advantage of instructional videos in combination with flipping aspects of the curriculum to enhance learning and provide formative feedback to students and faculty. Eventually, these medical videos may well be “exported” to students around the world.

But back to MOOCs. Yale was an innovator in this field; under the leadership of Professor Diana Kleiner, Open Yale Courses were created, starting in 2007, and now 42 are available on YouTube and at iTunesU. Open Yale Courses were and remain the gold standard of “first generation” MOOCs. The first of Yale’s second generation MOOCs will appear in January and will offer state-of-the-art content by leading professors in their fields: Professors Akhil Amar, Paul Bloom, Robert Shiller and Diana Kleiner. The introductions to their courses can be seen on the Yale Coursera website.

The problem to the moment for online education at Yale  has been a lack of information. Thus, next month we will launch a website where the community will find vastly more information about online education here. But more immediately, to get the word out as to what is happening, the Online Education Committee will hold an Open Forum this afternoon at 4:00 p.m. in Linsly-Chittenden Hall.

President Salovey has emphasized that Yale’s online initiative will only be successful if it is faculty-driven — ideas must percolate up from those faculty excited about reimagining the classroom experience, not imposed from on high by an administrative office. So please join us this afternoon to learn more and give us your ideas as to how digital initiatives might be used to energize the classroom by those teachers who wish to do so.

Craig Wright is Henry L. and Lucy G. Moses professor of music and the academic director of online education. Contact him at craig.wright@yale.edu.

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