University News

Committee prioritizes developing, incentivizing online courses

Discussion topics include faculty compensation and intellectual property

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, January 28, 2013
This article is part of the series Planning in Progress

The Online Teaching and Learning committee’s interim report recommended the University develop online education initiatives by encouraging faculty members to create online courses, outlining policies regarding ownership of courses taught online and determining a stance on Brown’s place in the larger movement toward massive online education.

The report also recommended creating a single webpage to tie together all of Brown’s current online offerings, future and ongoing intiatives and web-based student projects created for Brown classes.

The report is the first tangible result of a series of meetings in the fall, during which committee members discussed online initiatives and massive open online courses. Other committees, such as the Committee on Educational Innovation, also participated in those discussions.

“We treated our meetings like seminars … and we would talk about, ‘What does online learning mean? How might this impact universities, not just Brown, but more broadly?’” said Harriette Hemmasi, University librarian and chair of the Online Teaching and Learning committee.

But the recommendations outlined in the report are still preliminary — administrators will next “evaluate the range” of ideas outlined and determine which should become University priorities.

Ideas varied from developing online classes that will build professional skills to improve Rhode Island’s economy to creating teaching spaces designed for online learning.

“I appreciated the specificity of it,” said Anamta Farook ’14. “It talks about actionable things that can be done. I thought that was great.”

The committee built its ideas in part from a report by the Ad Hoc Committee on Online Education, which outlined several recommendations last year to bring Brown into the arena of online education.

The last page of the report lists seven “priority action items” related to encouraging faculty members to use online technology in the classroom, deciding whether Brown will offer credit for online courses, determining ownership of the online courses and finalizing Brown’s stance on MOOC platforms like Coursera.

“They still need to discuss how online education can be integrated with the Brown curriculum and still allow students to be the architects of their own education,” said Marguerite Joutz ’15.

Items were not put on the priority list because they were most important, but rather because the committee felt they could be acted on now, Hemmasi said.

The committee hopes to have drafts for most priority action items ready by early fall, she said. Some items, like “defining Brown’s position on open learning,” as stated in the report, would need draft statements from senior administrators, she said.

The recommendations could still change, as the committee will continue to evaluate which items should become University priorities, said Kathy Takayama, director of the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. In the report, the committee suggested collaborating with the Sheridan Center to help faculty members develop online courses.

“The most fundamental thing here is to make sure that we have a staff and skilled experts who are ready to assist faculty and peers,” Hemmasi said.

Though no online courses are currently available to students, three summer classes will be offered online for free through the online platform Coursera.

There will also be a few for-credit courses online offered to Brown summer session undergraduates. The report recommended reviewing both the Coursera pilot and the for-credit courses as part of determining how to move forward with online education projects.

One of the for-credit courses will be ENGL 0180: “Introduction to Creative Nonfiction,” taught by Elizabeth Taylor, senior lecturer in English and co-director of the Nonfiction Writing Program. The class will still be capped at 17 students as it is when offered in the classroom.

“This is exciting to me because the whole world is living online and figuring out how to translate what has been a success in a hard-copy classroom,” Taylor said. “It’s an intriguing challenge.”

She has translated her syllabus into an online format and has been participating in weekly training sessions to prepare for the transition.

Another priority action item deals with faculty incentives, both monetary and non-monetary, for those who create blended and online courses.

“I’ve been working on (the online course) since last fall, using the whole year to create a course that won’t start until June,” Taylor said. She added that she believes faculty incentives are “necessary” because those who develop online courses have to put in additional work on top of the courses they already teach.

“Incentives (are in the report) so that we don’t create an unfair situation among faculty,” Hemmasi said. The issue of whether one online course should count more or less for faculty members than one classroom course is still being discussed, she said.

The committee also aims to develop policies about transferring online course credit. “If a course is online and known to be a great class taught by an outstanding faculty member, why shouldn’t you be able to (transfer the credit)?” Hemmasi said.

The report also raised questions about intellectual property policies dealing with course ownership.

Though faculty members develop content, videographers and even students might be involved in creating the course itself, Hemmasi said. “So who owns the class? It needs to be clarified, and it is not part of the faculty policy right now.”

The multiple team members and hours of production needed to create an online course raise the price. “Based on other universities’ experiences, it costs around $50,000 to generate one fully online course,” Hemmasi said. Every image and sound is copyrighted, so faculty members have to pay attention to that, she said.

The report also listed Brown’s position on opening its online courses to the public as a priority item. The committee recommends that copies of classes taught online be made available for reuse, she added.

“It’s important for Brown to think about what’s the point of view in educating the masses,” Hemmassi said. “Coursera — we’re doing it because it gives us good exposure and it gives us good experience, but do we have other motives for doing it? Are any of our motives related to open access? That’s kind of the vision and future for Brown that all of us need to grapple with.”

Though not a priority action item, supporting student needs is listed in the report as a preliminary initiative. Integrating online learning into a Brown education can meet “the diverse learning styles, capacities and goals of individual students,” the report states. By developing online education, the University can “free itself from the strictures of a fixed curriculum,” the report adds.

“Brown students already have considerable freedom and flexibility as architects of their degrees and learning experiences and this just adds one more layer to that,” Hemmasi said. “It no longer matters where you are or how long it takes, this kind of learning at your own pace and at your own place.”

The interim report supported various forms of “digitally-mediated instruction” including fully online classes with either live or pre-recorded lectures, blended or hybrid classes or simply increased technology in the classroom.

Online courses should be more than just videos of lectures, Hemmasi said. One of the preliminary action items was to offer short “mini” courses, taught by either Brown faculty members, invited faculty members or field experts. A student who wants to talk about the environment or the Middle East, for example, might go to a faculty member and then create an online dialogue, Hemmasi said. Peers from around the world could work on a problem or issue together, she said.

“This demonstrates the capability of the technology that is available to us,” Hemmasi said. “For example, an expert in Russia who wants to teach at Brown doesn’t have to come to Brown. They can interview by Skype and have a real-time, synchronous exchange. I just think this is fantastic.”

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