A decade ago, if professor Diana Kleiner had had a crucial question about a detail on a Roman ruin in the Syrian desert city of Palmyra, she would have had to get on a plane.
But last semester, while she was teaching her massive open online course “Roman Architecture,” no flight was necessary — the 40,000 students in her course lived on all three continents that the Roman Empire contained at its height. Students who lived close to the relevant monuments often offered to take pictures to share with their classmates.
For Kleiner, who admits that she was skeptical of the format at first, this type of interaction is exactly what makes MOOCs so valuable. While she initially worried that the type of individual student engagement she values even in lecture courses would not be possible with such a large class, she was pleasantly surprised that she could still get a good sense of the class’s active students through their consistent posts on an online forum. Far from feeling alienated from her students, Kleiner got to know the active ones so well that on a trip to Rome this summer, she visited some of them in person.
“That opportunity to have people on the spot was incredible for the dialogue that ensues,” said Kleiner, an art history professor and member of the University’s committee on online education. “It was one of the most memorable experiences I had in that course.”
For better or worse, Yale’s online platform is expanding, and it is not going to stop any time soon. According to Craig Wright, a Yale music professor and chair of the University committee on online education, Yale will release more MOOCs in January 2015. But these online open courses are only a fraction of the online educational options Yale already offers, Wright said.
“[MOOCs] get 95 percent of the publicity, and it’s really about 5 percent of what [the University committee on online education] thinks about,” he said. In fact, the University has many non-MOOC online initiatives that few know about, he added.
Earlier this year, Yale’s computer science department chair Joan Feigenbaum announced that the Harvard and Yale computer science departments are in talks about potentially bring CS50, Harvard’s most popular undergraduate course, to Yale’s campus. In addition to several distance language programs, many of Yale’s graduate and professional schools have incorporated some form of online education into their curricula in recent years.
Yale started offering non-MOOC online courses for credit as a part of its 2011 Summer Session. In 2011, two courses were offered. In 2014, that number was 19.
THE BIGGEST COURSES
According to Feigenbaum, the possible addition of CS50 to Yale’s curriculum could be a significant improvement for the department, which currently lacks enough faculty to offer a wide variety of courses as the faculty would like.
“Together with our Harvard partners, we would use a hybrid instructional model that aims to combine the best of newfangled online instruction and the best of traditional classroom instruction,” Feigenbaum said.
In addition to Harvard computer science professor David Malan’s online videos, Yale students would be brought together in the classroom with Yale faculty members and teaching assistants for sections.
As Yale explores the possibility of partnering with Harvard, professors who teach some of Yale’s flagship courses are split on their willingness to offer their courses to students at peer institutions online.
Psychology professor Paul Bloom, who teaches “Introduction to Psychology,” one of the most highly rated courses at Yale, said he would be willing to offer his course to other schools, but only under the right circumstances. He added that the combination of online lectures with in person seminars would make an excellent teaching model.
But professor of military and naval history John Gaddis, who teaches the popular Cold War lecture, said he would not be willing to provide online lectures because he needs students physically in the classroom to get a sense of what works in lectures.
He added that he has questions about online courses that no advocates of the pedagogical model have been able to adequately answer — specifically, how online courses could be graded fairly in subjective fields.
“History isn’t like math, where there are single right answers that need no further explanation or qualification,” Gaddis said.
According to other professors, there may also be intellectual property issues to worry about with online course sharing initiatives.
Art history professor J.D. Connor explained that in fields like film, music, contemporary art and poetry, lecturers may use clips in the classroom under fair use guidelines, but it is unclear whether this permission would extend to courses disseminated broadly online.
Connor added that some classroom activities would be very difficult to do through online models.
“Analytic reading, synthetic writing, iterative discussions — if there were a way to make that practical as distance learning, I would gladly participate,” he said in a Thursday email. “I don’t believe there is, and I don’t believe there will be during my lifetime. At the same time, for the vast majority of academics, I don’t believe we’ll have a choice.”
REACHING OTHER NATIONS
Sinhala — a Sri Lankan dialect — is not offered in a traditional classroom setting at Yale. So last year, Samantha Nanayakkara ’15 had to study the language independently and for no credit. This semester, she is taking Sinhala 130 in a classroom, albeit an unconventional one. A student in the Shared Course Initiative — which allows students at Columbia, Cornell and Yale to take small language seminars together with a professor at only one institution through the use of high definition video conferencing — Nanayakkara sits in a room with just one other student, no professor physically present. She focuses on a high-definition screen on the wall, video conferencing a class in Ithaca, N.Y., where a Cornell professor teaches the language. This semester, 21 Yale students are enrolled in SCI language courses coming from Yale and Columbia.
Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, the director of Yale’s Center for Language Study, hesitates to call SCI an online education initiative. While the program uses the internet to link students from three schools, Van Deusen-Scholl explained that it is quite different from what most people think of as an online educational model.
She said that most people think online education consists of just pre-taped videos, and thus lacks the kind of interactivity that she and her colleagues believe is at the core of language education.
“Many online models are asynchronous,” she said. “We have not gone that route with SCI. It’s a way for us to provide language instruction using distance technology, but the choices we’ve made were to emulate a regular classroom.”
The SCI program started in 2012, after budget constraints made teaching languages with small enrollments difficult. The SCI model purposefully limits partners to three peer institutions and class enrollment to 12 students, enabling the program to meet its goal of a highly interactive language education.
But Huasha Zhang GRD ’18, who is taking the Classical Tibetan 130 SCI course, said that the course experience hinges on the quality of the technology in the room. First, her Tibetan class was held in the Center for Language Studies where, she said, screens were poor and the surround system did not function well. Now that the class has moved to a room in Luce Hall, she spends several hours per week surrounded by large flat screens and a glitch-free sound system.
“Everything functions so well that you almost think you and students on the other side [of the screen] are actually in the same classroom,” Zhang said.
Van Deusen-Scholl also noted that the Connecticut State University system has replicated the SCI model, expanding it beyond language courses to include small seminars.
SCI administrators from Yale and Columbia presented the online program at a September conference in Prague that drew university administrators from around the world.
Efforts extend beyond SCI. Next semester, Yale students will also have the opportunity to video conference with students in Rwanda in political science professor David Simon’s course “Rwanda Genocide in Comparative Perspectives.”
“This is a little bit of a way to break out of a campus bubble,” Simon said. “I think many students would agree that having a guest speaker … is enlightening for students and a welcome change of pace.”
Correction: Oct. 31
A previous version of this article misstated the title of computer science department chair Joan Feigenbaum.