With online education, one size does not fit all

After a recent media blitz promoting Yale’s online education efforts, the Committee on Online Education held a forum on Monday to showcase different digital initiatives at Yale.

This week, the creation of a new “Yale Online” Twitter account, a community-wide email and an op-ed in the News on Monday all pointed to the event as a coming-out party for Yale’s expanded digital efforts. With some 75 people, most of whom were faculty members, in attendance, the panel featured a variety of faculty- and student-led digital experiments, highlighting what Vice President for Global and Strategic Initiatives Linda Lorimer called Yale’s “homegrown” and faculty-driven movements towards online education.

“Obviously there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to online education here,” said music professor Craig Wright, who chairs the Committee on Online Education.

Discussion focused on Massive Open Online Courses, commonly known as MOOCs, in an acknowledgement of the dominance of MOOC platforms such as Coursera in the current national debate on online education. But no consensus emerged from panelists’ conflicting views on the future role of MOOCs in Yale’s online education initiatives.

Panelist Paul Bloom, a psychology professor who will teach one of Yale’s pilot Coursera lectures in the spring, said he prefers MOOCs to large lecture courses but not to seminars.

“I don’t think a MOOC is going to replace a seminar,” he said. “I’d much rather my son, who is going to college next year, take seminars than MOOCs.”

Art history professor and committee member Diana Kleiner — who is also one of the four professors to pioneer Yale’s Coursera lectures — touted the status of MOOCs as the “coin of the realm,” noting that Yale’s position as an educational leader mandates that the University not eschew such trends.

Meanwhile, English professor and committee member Wai Chee Dimock GRD ’82 outlined her criticisms of Coursera and suggested an open-source alternative modeled on one of her own online courses in American literature.

Ryan Mendías ’13, a Woodbridge Fellow in the Office of Digital Dissemination and Online Education, said that the panel was intended to dispel the notion that Coursera was the University’s single-minded approach to online education.

“The Coursera classes are going live next semester, and we wanted people to have a chance before they go live to see the range of everything we’re doing,” he said. “Coursera classes are only part of a bigger picture.”

Lucas Swineford, the director of digital media and dissemination, said that Yale’s legal agreements with online education platforms such as Coursera are nonexclusive, meaning that Yale professors could take their pick of online partnerships.

Some existing programs have entirely sidestepped outside platforms. Panelist Mike Schwartz, an associate dean of the Yale School of Medicine, said the medical school is planning a school-wide curricular overhaul in 2015 that will replace in-class lectures with online videos in order to clear class time for small group interactions.

To implement the changes, the medical school will ask professors to take half-hour training courses on making their own video lectures, which they can then film at their leisure in a studio at the Cushing Library, Schwartz said.

Mathematics professor James Rolf presented his department’s decision to condense MATH 115 lectures into 10-minute-long online instructional videos, leaving class time for difficult problems and giving students greater freedom over how to process the course material.

“Students can watch and acquire the information at their leisure and at their speed,” Rolf said. “However they want to consume the information, that’s their choice.”

The two student speakers at the panel emphasized the timeliness of online education. Sara Ronis GRD ’15, a fellow at the Yale Teaching Center, made an appeal to include graduate students in online education initiatives, noting that one out of every two higher education teaching jobs asks applicants to have some experience with online education. Zach Reneau-Wedeen ’14, the co-director of HackYale, offered insight from that student-run open lecture and workshop series.

Miles Calabresi ’15 said he attended the panel because the administration has not been entirely transparent about its online development efforts in the past.

“I’m glad to know that this committee exists and that they’re working on a lot of these 21st century questions,” he said.

The next online education forum will take place in January.

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