Brown community members expressed a mixture of excitement and wariness in response to the University’s announcement that it will commence two online education pilot projects next year. Many lauded the decision, first announced Sept. 5 in an email from Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron, as an appropriate modernization and expansion of access to higher education, but some voiced concern that the courses could represent shoddy imitations of the classroom experience.
Next summer, the University will offer a few for-credit courses online only for Brown summer session students. The University will also join the online course platform Coursera, which offers free, not-for-credit classes to hundreds of thousands of people around the globe.
“I think it’s very much in line with the kind of philosophy that we had with the New Curriculum and that Brown has sort of been a leader in,” said Ira Magaziner ’69 P’06 P’07 P’10, an architect of the University’s distinctive curriculum. Expanding access would, he added, put “more educational control in the hands of students.”
Professor of Comparative Literature Arnold Weinstein, whose class COLT 1420T: “The Fiction of Relationship” will be one of the first three Brown classes offered on Coursera, considered the development in the context of the broader timeline of higher education, noting that in medieval universities, only professors were allowed access to libraries and books.
“This is part of that same trajectory or story of increasingly empowered students,” Weinstein said.
The instantaneous public relations boost that accompanies a Coursera partnership will benefit the University, said Provost Mark Schlissel P’15. “We can use the Coursera platform to, in effect, advertise the quality of Brown’s educational efforts to the broader world,” he said. “So we’re not thinking of Coursera as eventually becoming part of a Brown student’s education. We’re thinking of it as a way to show the broader world what a Brown education is like.”
Others worried the resources necessary for such an endeavor would distract from the University’s mission of serving students on campus.
“I think it does distract away from those faculty members’ core involvement, if you will, with the curriculum at hand and with the students at hand,” said Stephen Nelson, higher education expert and senior scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown. “There’s no free lunch.”
To make time for Coursera preparations, each of the three involved faculty members will teach one fewer in-person class at Brown this year, though Schlissel said the University is providing each affected department with additional funding to compensate for the lost course. Weinstein said he would retire teaching “The Fiction of Relationship” after teaching it online.
But Professor of Computer Science Philip Klein, who will be transferring CSCI 0530: “Directions: The Matrix in Computer Science” to Coursera, said working with so many students on an online platform would help him identify teaching areas that require improvement more easily than if he were in a Brown classroom.
“We have a chance to collect data at a much greater scale than ever before, and that’s going to have a big impact on education,” Klein said. “That’s a really important thing for people to realize – that Brown education will be improved as a consequence of this.”
But not everyone is convinced that the education through Coursera will measure up to Brown standards. Iman Jenkins ’14 said she is worried about the loss of “the student-teacher relationship in in-person lectures.” Critics outside the University have previously raised concerns about Coursera’s system of peer-grading and about the platform’s retention rate – in many courses, fewer than half the students who sign up actually complete the class.
The University’s decision to try out Coursera via a pilot program offers Brown the flexibility of investigating different methods of instruction, Bergeron told The Herald.
“What I think is interesting about the new forms of pedagogy that come around any kind of new teaching experience is that by doing it, you learn a lot,” she said. Joining Coursera, she added, is an opportunity to explore, rather than a definite long-term commitment.
Outside observers have also noted that massive, open online courses provide universities with the opportunity to create new revenue streams and increase name recognition abroad. The latter would boost the University’s globalization efforts, Schlissel said.
For-credit online courses
The second pilot project, which will bring online courses directly to Brown students for credit, met more mixed reactions across campus.
Steven Sloman, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, said he thought the approach would offer the opportunity to tailor instruction more individually to students in some courses. But Sloman, whose classes have ranged from the 250-person lecture CLPS 0220: “Making Decisions” to two-person seminars, worried that digital learning would eliminate the unique back-and-forth of a physical classroom.
“Online settings make it harder or make it impossible to have real conversations,” he said. And though Coursera fits well with Brown’s emphasis on openness, the lack of discussion inherent in certain online classes would contradict the University’s philosophy, he added.
Grant Glovin ’16 said online courses could undercut the unique sense of engagement that Brown’s no-requirements model traditionally affords.
“It’s great to be in a class with people who all want to take that same class,” Glovin said, “and how does that work if you’re learning online?”
David Gonzalez ’14 said he was attracted to Brown as a high school student because students seemed so excited about what they had just learned that they wanted to continue the discussion outside of class. Online courses, which lack an in-person community, could compromise that, he said.
But some noted that online summer courses could be a major boon for students who lack the means to stay in Providence between academic years. “This could be a way for students to get things done over the summer at home,” said Tori Lee ’14.
‘Alternative modes of instruction’
Bergeron said the Ad Hoc Committee on Online Education, whose recommendations led to the new pilot projects, warmed to the idea of online Brown courses when it considered the types of courses that such digital learning would replace – large, introductory lectures often viewed as impersonal.
“Interestingly, there was a kind of funny consensus that seemed to grow up around the idea that well, gee, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have some alternative modes of instruction for those kinds of classes,” Bergeron said.
Nelson said he appreciated the willingness to experiment with different kinds of teaching, but said his experience teaching online courses elsewhere made him skeptical, particularly for classes based more on discussion than data.
“I believe there’s not any comparison,” he said. “It’s a flat screen, and you’re typing words into a discussion board.” And he worried that online education advocates would take the trend too far, as he thinks they already have at other universities. “Frankly, the adults in the room also have a responsibility to say enough is enough,” he added.
Some contended that the entire approach to online education is misguided. Former Stanford and Yale professor Roger Schank advocates wholesale reform of the online university system. Schank said the majority of schools – which he said are currently “not doing their job” – should offer specific degree programs online, with elite research universities like Brown maintaining in-person, liberal arts curricula. “Brown is fine, okay? It’s fine,” Schank said. “They shouldn’t be doing anything online.” The only reasons Brown wants to digitize, he added, are saving money and responding to alumni complaints.
Ultimately, no one interviewed for this article said they envisioned online education replacing residential four-year universities like Brown in the future, and many expressed excitement to see where the new ventures go. The pilot projects were widely seen as supplements or alternative ways of learning, though their merits were up for debate. Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford computer science professor who was a pioneer in massive open online courses and who leads Coursera rival Udacity, said his model would not supplant places like Brown, “just as much as a television hasn’t replaced radio, and movies haven’t replaced stage acting. … What it does is really a different function,” he said. “There are different characteristics, different advantages and disadvantages.”
The conversation around these pilot projects appears likely to continue throughout the year, as the University considers other ways of incorporating technology – like “flipped” classes, in which students watch lectures at home and work together in class. The ad hoc committee’s report also advised that the University offer support services through places like the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning to assist professors in making the most of digitization.