University News

Bergeron’s exit creates opening for online ed advocacy

Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 said a large Coursera presence is likely not in the University’s future

By
Senior Staff Writer
Dubin_Berg.Online_Justina Lee

Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron’s recent efforts to bolster the University’s online education presence leaves open the question of who will emerge as an advocate for online initiatives after she departs at the semester’s end.

Various administrators said they were excited by online education’s potential but few expressed eagerness to assume Bergeron’s mantle.

Bergeron previously told The Herald the University’s experiments in online education are “supported at the provost level.”

University Librarian Harriette Hemmasi, who chaired the Committee for Online Teaching and Learning during President Christina Paxson’s strategic planning process, also said Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 would ultimately decide how the University proceeds with online education.

“It really is in the provost’s hands to decide how he wants to direct the future,” Hemmasi said.

The Office of the Provost provides much of the funding for online education initiatives, Schlissel said, adding that he attends meetings about the projects and discusses the subject with colleagues at other institutions.

“This is a real hot topic in the academy right now, and that’s actually a wonderful thing because there’s more discussions about the nature of teaching and how we can improve the quality of our teaching, how we can innovate, than any time that I can remember in the past,” Schlissel said. “I think it’s being driven by people experimenting and wanting to explore the potential of online content.”

But Schlissel said online education will be “one of the major responsibilities of Dean Bergeron’s successor.”

Schlissel said the three Coursera courses offered this summer will almost certainly be offered again, adding that a few more Coursera courses may be developed.

The University can use Coursera to connect with students unfamiliar with the institution and to engage with alums, Schlissel said.

“Think how cool it would be … 10 years from now — you’re off at your job, and one of your favorite professors is offering a Coursera course online,” he said, “and now in the evening you can do that for fun.”

Despite Coursera’s utility as an alum engagement tool, “I do not think in the long run that Brown will aspire to have a very large presence on Coursera,” Schlissel said.

Online education will function “as an adjunct to our teaching on campus” — not as a substitute for it, Schlissel said.

“I think the centerpiece of a Brown education is the face-to-face interaction between a professor and students and the interaction of those students with one another. I think that there’s a place for online content to enhance that education, but I don’t think to substantially replace it.”

Schlissel said online, for-credit courses broaden the opportunities available to students over the summer, allowing those doing internships or working summer jobs outside of Providence to take a Brown course simultaneously. For example, this past summer Elizabeth Taylor, senior lecturer in English and co-director of the Nonfiction Writing Program, taught the popular course ENGL 0180: “Introduction to Creative Nonfiction” as an online seminar.

Dean of Continuing Education Karen Sibley MAT ’81 P’07 P’12 may take on a larger role in shaping online education efforts, Hemmasi said.

Sibley has worked on developing a number of online programs, including Taylor’s summer seminar, which became Brown’s first-ever online, for-credit course.

But Schlissel said he did not envision a time when students could fulfill graduation requirements primarily through online course offerings.

“I would imagine we’ll continue to produce modest numbers of online courses targeted specifically at our own students for credit, but I don’t think that will ever become a predominant part of the Brown curriculum,” Schlissel said.

Like Schlissel, Hemmasi said the next dean of the College could fill the advocacy role Bergeron has recently held.

But Hemmasi said she was not worried about online education disappearing from the campus discourse in Bergeron’s absence, adding that the topic is of interest to many Univesity faculty members and administrators.

“I am a very strong advocate for online teaching and learning, as are actually a number of faculty on this campus who have been involved at some level of this kind of interaction for a long time,” Hemmasi said.

Executive Director of the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning Kathy Takayama, who was the University’s “point person for Coursera” and worked most closely with the three faculty members who taught courses on the platform this summer, will continue to play a prominent role in online education initiatives, Hemmasi said.

Takayama and the Sheridan Center also led the development of ECON 1110: “Intermediate Microeconomics,” a blended course taught by Professor of Economics Pedro Dal Bo being piloted for the first time this semester, Hemmasi said.

Traditional lectures are held Mondays and Fridays, while on Wednesdays students watch 10-minute “microlectures” online before attending a two-hour group problem solving session, Takayama said.

But Sibley said while she intends to remain active in developing online education initiatives, she does not foresee herself taking on an advocacy role similar to Bergeron’s, suggesting instead that Schlissel would lead online projects.

“The provost has been consistently the guidepost and person encouraging, along with the senior deans … the exploration of online content delivery,” Sibley said. “I feel like I’ve got really interesting responsibilities and opportunities to serve Brown from a different position than that of dean of the College.”

“In terms of sort of the advocacy question … it’s the provost and the president at the most senior levels, thinking about what Brown needs to do in this sort of disruptive period in higher education, and I think that’s where you’ll see leadership,” Sibley said. Leadership from others across different areas of the University will follow suit, she added.

Takayama similarly said her job is not to advocate in the same way as Bergeron has but to focus on the development of tools for online teaching and learning.

She said her work focuses on “building greater capacity and potential” for undergraduate and graduate teaching initiatives.

While Bergeron’s role as dean of the College and overseer of the undergraduate curriculum naturally lends itself to an advocacy role, that is not the place for the executive director of the Sheridan Center, Takayama said.