At 10 a.m. on June 5, 2012, Molly Lucas ’14 logged into her seminar. Though it was the first class of the semester, there were no introductions or small talk between the students, no shuffling of feet and doors opening as shoppers ventured in — the 15 students here had already paid their $3,150 tuition. There was only the hum of computer fans. Even before this first meeting, Lucas had already read seven chapters from the course textbooks and watched and rewatched the first three lecture videos of the course over coffee at Willoughby’s or from the comfort of her apartment. Now Lucas was sitting all alone, eyeing each of the other students but never making eye contact, as they waited for class to begin.

Professor Laurie Santos materialized on Lucas’ screen, her face looming over the students’ faces arranged in rows beneath. Lucas stared at all the faces of her classmates and professor, simultaneously. Santos broke into a smile and welcomed the students to “Sexy Psych,” the nickname for PSYC S171E — “S” because it was held in the summer, “E” because it was an experiment in online education, one of eight pilot online for-credit courses offered that summer.

Video-conferencing tools have been employed in classrooms to bring in distant guest speakers or to connect two classrooms in collaborative activities. But in 2011, Dean of Summer Sessions William Whobrey and three enterprising professors wanted to experiment with a novel model of online education that would transcend the classroom. When the first three proof-of-concept summer courses were declared a success, the number was expanded to eight last summer.

Santos was cognizant of the challenge that confronted her: to cover an entire course in just eight hours of instruction. She wasn’t sure whether the online format would work: students might not engage as well over Skype-like interaction. They might watch the lectures carelessly, there could be technical difficulties and it might be easier to cheat. But it was worth a shot.

Lucas adjusted her webcam and headset, and then watched herself as she introduced herself to the class. She felt a strange sensation seeing her lips move in sync with her voice. “It was a little nerve-wracking at first,” Lucas says. When Lucas told the class that she was still on campus, a few laughed. Most students were taking this course online because they were anywhere but the Elm City — it was midnight for some students and midday for others. But Lucas already liked Santos’ classes, and thought she’d give online for-credit courses a shot while also taking other classes in person, and conducting research at the Yale Child Study Center.

A classmate was having technical difficulties while trying to introduce himself, and his mouth lagged behind his voice. (Evidently, he had not read the course requirements for a good Internet connection before enrolling.) His face suddenly disappeared in the middle of speaking. Though he reappeared in half a minute, it was clear that he wouldn’t be able to take the class. After hurried greetings and introductions, Santos went over course expectations, warning students to expect a heavy workload, since they had to watch the lectures on their own before coming to class. And class was not going to be discussion section “lite.”

Then Santos jumped into the class material, posing open questions about natural selection and human evolution. Although separated from some of her peers by thousands of miles, Lucas found the online environment more intimate than the classroom. “With the professor right there at the top of the screen, I felt like she was talking directly with me, like I was having a conversation,” Lucas said. She raised her hand (or rather, held it in front of the camera), and the mirror image of her face was blown up to replace Santos’ on the screen, while Santos’ joined the ranks of the students’ faces. When Lucas had finished speaking, another student raised his hand, and his face replaced hers in turn. There wasn’t any table in the way, and Lucas didn’t have to crane her neck to see some of the students. She saw facial expressions, even microexpressions in other students that she had never noticed in the seminar. It was easy to forget that these were merely pixels on a computer monitor; this was face-to-face communication in its most literal form.

The exchange of ideas between the students blossomed. While the students discussed their ideas in rotation, two other students were typing furiously, engaging in a separate commentary that popped up in the public chat bar on the side of the screen. The panel of faces on the screen also placed each student on an equal level to engage in the class. Lucas noticed that nobody tried to dominate the discussion, yet her classmates were generally engaged more actively in discussions than they might be in a typical seminar. There were the glitches and connection issues, the social barriers and the comical disturbances when a student’s parent would charge into the room and inadvertently disrupt the class. When the class ended, Lucas remained sitting in her chair in her apartment. There wasn’t the chatter between students filing out the classroom. No conversations about where to go for lunch, no gossip or news. Nothing but the hum of the computer fan again as the faces vanished from the screen.

Lucas took off her headset and glanced at her schedule to see the times for her research and the rest of her classes, and she marked in the times when she could sneak in a video lecture or a chapter of reading. It was so much easier to spread out her work when she had the freedom to watch lectures anytime, anywhere. She could rewind and rewatch lectures to study or take notes, helping her better absorb and remember the material so that she could reference specific examples in section.

If only online courses were offered during the academic year.


A face-to-face interface

The questions bombarded Santos from all sides: Will this harm Yale’s traditional values? How does this affect students’ expression or critical thinking? How are we able to evaluate their learning?

Connecticut Hall was filled with professors from all departments at the Dec. 7 faculty meeting, as Santos testified to her online seminar’s success, five months after its conclusion. “It really felt like a live section,” she said. “I got to know students much better than I would as part of my big lecture class.”

Professors Paul Bloom and Craig Wright presented the report from the Committee on Online Education, where they described the success of Yale’s first online courses offered for credit over the last two summers. With 14 online courses slated to run next summer, they argued that Yale should now extend such courses to the academic year — a recommendation that may be realized as soon as next fall.

Bloom’s, Wright’s and Santos’ portrayals of the online experience seemed counterintuitive. At the meeting, they suggested that Yale students prefer online seminars to seminars in a physical classroom. That students also learn more, focus more, participate more and remember more in a face-to-face setting. That rather than hindering interpersonal interaction and the flow of conversation, the digital environment facilitated it. The audience was alternately curious, enthusiastic and alarmed.

Literature professor Paul Fry had been happy to see the rise of massive open online courses (nicknamed MOOCs) in 2007 through Open Yale Courses, which helped Yale spread knowledge to people from all walks of life in all corners of the globe. When Fry put his “Introduction to Theory of Literature” course online, he was delighted to receive thousands of grateful emails from viewers around the world, albeit disappointed that his course enrollment subsequently fell by half.

But the online format being discussed at that December meeting was something else entirely, diametrically opposed to the MOOCs in purpose if not in form. Though an interactive online seminar might seem like a logical step after MOOCs and webcasts, MOOCs only require a one-way transfer of information, while online seminars are hyperinteractive, exclusive, intensive, expensive and for credit. They are meant to recreate the full classroom experience — lively debates, thoughtful critiques, inside jokes and all — through a headset and 15-inch laptop screen. Many professors were skeptical that an online platform would stand up to the challenge. Some still are.

Though Fry suggests there is a place for these small online classes in the sciences, he is convinced it would be “probably disastrous” in the humanities. “In the humanities, we’ll always need face-to-face interaction, and not just by Skype,” he insisted. But professor John Rogers enjoyed the online format for his class on Milton’s poetry. By freeing up the time delivering lecture, he could spend more time with the students covering the material in-depth through sophisticated discussions in section, which was impossible in his lecture classes.

Still, Rogers was not fully willing to commit to the online medium, as were most attendees at the faculty meeting. Online education might serve as a flexible alternative, but it certainly couldn’t substitute for the in-person lecture or seminar, they thought. Even Bloom and Wright, who co-chaired the committee, were careful to present this new online format as an experimental mode of teaching that may have its niche in the curriculum.

Professors intuitively believed that the physical presence and body language was fundamental to the class experience. “When one only has access to the close-up of the face of a student and instructor, there’s a lot of other intellectual and emotional information that’s lost,” Rogers asserted, adding that he was frustrated by the inability to see body language.  Similar thoughts were echoed by most professors interviewed, as they felt uncomfortable with the inherent limitations in the online setting to bridge students on a personal or emotional level. Wright was disappointed when students were less ready to laugh when he cracked jokes, and he was unsure whether students experienced the “emotional excitement of ideas.” “The infection of emotion that sweeps a room in a group setting wasn’t there,” Wright said. The video format “removes an element of human collective spontaneity.”

But in contrast, music professor Thomas Duffy said he actually found it easier to get to know his students on a personal level online though he led a class of just seven students. “I had robust, enjoyable, ridiculous at times, interactions with my students,” Duffy said, grinning. “I think I know my students, I’ve never met some of them but I know what they like and what they’re good at, and I have some idea about their personalities.”

How much these factors actually influence online education is anyone’s guess. Recent journal articles suggest that even remote psychiatry, where one might think that expressions and body language are particularly relevant, is roughly as effective through online chat as through in-person therapy.

Most students interviewed had not noticed any emotional limitations or did not believe that these losses compromised the class experience. “In a seminar, there’d be more time to have small talk with people. In the online classes, we commented on other people’s reading responses on a website, and that was pretty much the extent of our interactions outside of class,” Lauren Mathy ’13 said. “But I’m not complaining.” Perhaps an upbringing around Skype had accustomed the students to communicating with disembodied heads.

Or, “maybe there’s some different social dimension that exists online,” said Whobrey, dean of summer sessions. “Somebody should do a study on this.”

The scant research on differences between video-based communication and in-person communication suggests that students in online classrooms outperform those learning the same material through traditional in-person instruction, and Whobrey agreed that the quality of Yalies’ papers was generally higher in online classes. Introverts and students with strong time management skills also saw the greatest improvement in class performance.

Of course, no one has yet stuck students in an fMRI to measure brain activity and hormone levels while using Skype, let alone while participating in a video-conference seminar. Until then, we can only speculate on the importance of gestures and physical presence.


Cautious experimentation

Yale is one of the only universities that hosts interactive online classes for credit. But even on this front it is lagging behind the University of Pennsylvania, which had already introduced two such classes to the academic year last fall.

Penn’s platform has enhanced capabilities, allowing teachers to split students into small groups in separate chat rooms — useful for German class — and allows students to turn off their video feed to preserve connection speed. Penn also offers large webinar courses for credit, where the class is too large to allow for an online discussion section. Even in these, professors have the flexibility to turn on a student’s video feed to ask a question, and TAs engage students separately in the chat feed.

Last November, a consortium of 10 major universities, including Duke University, Emory University, Northwestern University and Washington University in St. Louis, announced a deal with technology company 2U to offer over 30 online courses next fall for credit granted by the host institution.

Though this frontier had been largely unexplored — and Yale’s platform was fairly cutting edge — the entry of the consortium, “Semester Online,” may soon leave Yale in the dust. The University has remained low-key in its development of online modes of education, paying little heed to the ongoing MOOC craze and resisting the temptation to join consortiums and sign on to platforms. It was not just any classroom experience that Yale needed to preserve; it was the Yale classroom experience, and, to Whobrey, that was a fragile thing.

Whobrey has seen seven committees consider various forms of online education at Yale, of which this merely represents the latest. “I see it in the spirit of experimentation,” he said. “This kind of software has only come along in the past five years, and that leap in technology is going to continue.” Penn’s Director of Online Learning & Digital Engagement Jacqueline Candido envisions that rapid progress in technology and research on online pedagogy will allow professors to improve learning outcomes in the online medium almost limitlessly. Candido challenges that even hands-on lab courses may be effectively adapted to the online format, citing some courses that already send chemistry kits to students to teach lab experiments. The limiting factor in improving learning will not be the online medium itself, but rather the technology of the time and the ingenuity of the professor.

Penn is actively developing and pursuing these online classes as an opportunity to enhance undergraduate academics while promoting brand extension and innovative teaching. On the other hand, Yale treats the online model as a promising prototype, still in the middle phases of testing. If it passes the final rounds of testing, then live classes will be offered alongside traditional lectures and seminars, as nothing more than an alternative mode of instruction.

Though Whobrey expressed openness to specific, useful collaborations with other universities for the purposes of a single course — he gave the example of an architecture course between students at Yale and students at Tsinghua University, or the courses in little-studied languages shared between Yale, Columbia and Cornell — he wants Yale to be able to control its own path, and foremost, he wants to preserve the Yale experience.

Even if Yale risks being left behind in the education revolution, faculty are more concerned that Yale risks running forward blindly. Yale classrooms will not go fully digital until everyone is sure they can preserve the same old Yale experience.