Soon after A. Bartlett Giamatti was made Yale’s president in 1978, a reporter from the New Haven Register called him.
The reporter wanted to know if Giamatti would consider for Yale something similar to the Harvard Extension School, which had been founded in 1910 to educate those in the Boston community who wanted to attend college but couldn’t because they needed to work.
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Giamatti, without mincing words, said Yale didn’t want to compete with the University of New Haven.
Michael Shinagel, who was the young dean of Harvard’s Extension School at the time, told the reporter that there were 50 or 60 colleges in Boston and Harvard didn’t see them as competitors. The comment angered Yale Secretary Henry Chauncey Jr. ’57, who called a friend at Harvard and fumed, “Who is that son of a bitch Shinagel?”
Just over 30 years later, Yale’s attitude toward educating people who can’t live in its residential colleges has changed. That is, you’re no longer a son of a bitch if you think Yale should educate as many people as it can.
Computers made all the difference.
After all, in the words of University Secretary Linda Lorimer, technology allows Yale to achieve a kind of “multiplier effect from its educational treasury.” While Yale was never eager to offer night classes, it is now happily putting videos of lectures and scans of books online.
But forget remote education. Technology is changing the way students learn and interact with professors on campus, too. Doing schoolwork doesn’t have to mean putting on white gloves in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library anymore. Now you can just write a blog post for class or add to something called — no joke — a WikiDiki.
Imagine a class where one of your main assignments is to work on a WikiDiki and your final paper is not a book review but a Wikipedia review, a critical look at a page on which hundreds of people around the globe may have worked.
The thing is, you really don’t need to imagine this class. It’s HIST 210, and it’s offered by the same school that accepts fewer than one in ten applicants and is known for its secret societies.
Like it or not, technology is opening up Yale.
UNDERMINING PRETENSION WITH PORTMANTEAUS
This much must be said: WikiDiki is a strange word.
Actually, it’s not a word at all, and certainly not one you’d expect to see on a syllabus written by a history professor. Even the professor, Anders Winroth, is a little surprised with himself.
“I’m a medieval historian, not a tech-savvy guy,” he says. “I’ve resisted getting a BlackBerry or whatever they’re called. I still use a watch that I have to wind myself.”
So what is Winroth doing asking his students to work on a WikiDiki? And what is a WikiDiki?
That’s the easy part. Winroth’s Medieval WikiDiki Project is a required component of his course on the central and late Middle Ages, “The Birth of Europe, 1000-1500.” The WikiDiki is a collaborative encyclopedia-cum-dictionary (hence the portmanteau) that students write and edit together.
Winroth calls the project “Wikipedia light,” and it is in many ways a dumbed-down — or smartened-up — version of the popular Web site. Students are required to contribute to the WikiDiki, which is hosted on Yale’s Classes*v2 server, and together they are defining everything from the Crusades to the Age of Discovery.
But the students are doing more than just learning together. They’re also grading each other. An “editorial board” for each week assigns entries to students and then votes on a grade for each entry.
With such a system, who needs blue books? Or even, as one student taking Winroth’s class now said, who needs professors? Couldn’t students just teach themselves via WikiDiki? Technology could replace tenure, and along with it the cloistered student-teacher interactions that Giamatti felt were at the heart of an elite education.
Hannah Brückner does not wind her own watch. She hosts “chat room hours” to answer student questions. She also understands that students may need space from their professor to discuss delicate issues.
Especially when they’re discussing the topic of her Spring seminar, “Sex and Romance in Adolescence.”
Because the issues her seminar addresses — such as virginity and incest and menstruation — can be difficult to talk about openly, Brückner wanted to create a blog that would allow for anonymous discussion outside of class.
So she contacted Yale’s Information Technology Services division, which worked with her to create an online forum to which students can post without ever being identified.
Less than a day after Brückner e-mailed ITS with the idea, the wheels were rolling. Now, more than a month into the semester, her students have made more than 100 posts to their class blog. Some have been deeply personal, like one titled “The Irony of Catholic School,” while others have evaluated possibly homophobic Super Bowl advertisements and the question of “Sissy Boys and Tom Girls.”
Austin Baik ’11, one of Brückner’s students, says the blog allows his classmates to make comments they “never would in a classroom setting.” The technology is as easy to use as Facebook, Baik adds, but the discussions are much more serious than those that occur on social networking sites.
“In the two hours that we meet, we’ll have discussions that inevitably get cut off or certain trains of thought that just never get completed,” Baik says. “The blog helps create a forum where we can continue those discussions.”
And, honestly, could you ever discuss sex toys in class? As one of Baik’s classmates, who asked to remain anonymous, says, “There are things I would never bring up in front of our professor that I can bring up on the blog. I can say whatever I want.”
But technology, surely to the chagrin of some students, has not yet made professors irrelevant.
BLUE-FOOTED BOOBIES … BEDSIDE
Shinagel, who is still dean of Harvard’s Extension School, says faculty remain the most valuable resources at universities. They write the books that are being digitized, after all, and they are the ones who bring blogs to their classrooms.
Christine Borgman, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies learning and technology, says the role of faculty is increasingly to compile and present data instead of analyzing it. Because when data is available online, students can do the analysis on their own.
“The data themselves are becoming first-class objects and products of research,” she says. “Particularly in areas like astronomy, you no longer have to have everyone on their own telescope.”
You also don’t have to get on a plane to Ecuador to see the Galapagos Islands. Stephen Stearns, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, traveled to the Galapagos in 2005. But he wasn’t by himself; he was accompanied by his wife and four technical assistants. Together, in just over a week, the team recorded over 20 hours of video footage and hundreds of photographs. Now a Web site has been built, and anyone — including Stearns’ students — can visit the Galapagos from a bedside laptop.
The Galapagos have come to New Haven — and the globe — thanks to Yale.
“The first push for learning and cyber-infrastructure was to grow a new generation of students who would understand how to use these tools,” Borgman says. “The next wave is to learn with that infrastructure.”
Learning from infrastructure may be helped along by some lessons Yale is learning from social networking sites.
Meg Bellinger, who is the University’s first-ever director of digital assets and infrastructure, says one of the challenges for Yale in digitizing materials is to catch up with the kind of collaborative tagging that is common on the Internet. As Yale digitizes more images of its art and other collections, Bellinger says, the University will consider posting them to Flickr, the popular photo-sharing site better known for snapshots than Van Goghs.
“One way to look at it,” Bellinger says, “is that Facebook and Flickr and YouTube and others have created a sort of social norm. We want to bring that functionality that you engage in just about every other moment of your life into your academic work.”
A new version of Yale’s online Visual Resources Collection — which brings together over 250,000 images from all across the University’s libraries and museums — allows for this kind of tagging. And professors can add value themselves, too, as notes from faculty can be attached to each image.
Yale’s most prominent digital endeavor has little do with tagging, though. It is Open Yale Courses.
While Yale is nowhere near Harvard (and other schools, like, um, the University of Phoenix) in terms of offering online courses for credit, it has now put lectures and syllabi from 21 Yale College courses online, free of charge.
The site allows you — whomever you are, wherever you are — to learn about financial markets from economics professor Robert Shiller, about death from philosophy professor Shelly Kagan and about “The Good Life” from psychology professor Paul Bloom.
Yale students can access these lectures, and many watch the videos as a way of shopping classes. But what about the ones who decide to take a class that’s been videotaped; have they stopped going to lecture?
Professor Charles Bailyn, whose “Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics” is online, says he has seen no decline in attendance since the lectures were made available as streaming video.
“It does happen to be true that the material changes from year to year,” Bailyn says. “Not hugely, but some. So it would be a foolish choice to rely on something that was filmed in 2006 in this particular class.”
But still — Bailyn’s class meets at 9:25 in the morning! Surely a few students are skipping and just watching the videos from bed.
After all, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison showed that 82 percent of students favor courses with lectures posted online. The vast majority of survey respondents — 93 percent — said they wanted the videos available in case they had to skip class.
Skipping lecture, though, may be the way of the future. Already, there are professors at Yale and elsewhere who assign lectures and use class time for discussion. Years ago, going to lecture at Yale required jacket and tie. Now, students can watch in their pajamas — or less.
Shinagel and others see no problem with lectures turning digital.
“Given computers, given distance education,” Shinagel says, “the whole thing will shift from where the instructor determines who will learn because he or she decides to teach Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11. People will be able to learn anytime.”
And, besides, having videos of lectures online means students can refer back to them while studying and break what Shinagel calls “the old medieval grip when the only way you could find out what the professor had in the book was when he read to you from the book.”
Giamatti thought Yale was above the University of New Haven. But now, Yale is joining YouTube and Facebook and Flickr. Elitist sons of bitches no longer.