Columns, Opinions

Douglas ’20: Put the Classroom Online

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, February 21, 2020

In 2013, President Christina Paxson P’19 unveiled her 10-year strategic plan, “Building on Distinction.” The plan called upon the Brown community to “enhance our capacity in the creative use of online technologies” through “aggressive experimentation in new modes of education.” Just a year earlier, the University had introduced its first Massive Open Online Course on Coursera, and a majority of students supported the move. Yet three years later, progress had slowed — credit-bearing online courses had not been introduced for undergraduates, despite years of planning and initial student enthusiasm.

This academic year, Brown has offered a few online courses, but the program remains limited to only seven concentrations out of more than 80. The vast majority of online courses are scheduled outside of the typical academic year, and few professors have agreed to teach fully online — many classes are repeats from the same faculty members.

The University must further expand its effort to bring courses fully online. Students have an unmet educational need, and online courses will provide them with greater flexibility while maintaining academic rigor. The University’s wide array of dedicated resources to digital learning are well positioned to bring courses out of the classroom and onto the internet; initial experiments in online classes have proved successful. It is thus imperative that more faculty members take a leap of faith and move their content fully online, overcoming their institutional inertia toward online learning.

The number of students that support online course offerings has likely only grown since the Fall 2012 poll and the beginning of the online course offering process. In the last eight years, online learning has become increasingly commonplace, both inside and outside the classroom. Professors have integrated online discussion posts, video content and lecture materials onto Canvas pages and course websites, and students have become increasingly reliant on YouTube videos, sophisticated software and online practice problems that enhance learning. Furthermore, students today naturally understand how to navigate online resources, whereas eight years ago students were a part of the transition from the physical to the digital.

The barriers to education that students face have not changed either. Online learning’s flexible timing makes it an attractive alternative for several categories of students. Athletes with difficult travel schedules, STEM students with long lab blocks and art students with lengthy studios all benefit from the ability to attend class and complete assignments outside of the typical class schedule. Low-income students benefit as well from the flexibility, which gives them the ability to work shifts required to support themselves throughout school.

Moreover, certain students may benefit from the inherent nature of an online platform. Students who speak English as a second language or are introverted benefit from the mask of online pseudo-anonymity. Many students are more comfortable participating in class and interacting with their classmates online, according to Elizabeth Taylor MA’84 PhD’89, distinguished senior lecturer in English, who has taught several online courses at the University. Additionally, students who find themselves away from campus for extended periods of time benefit from the ability to complete coursework anywhere.

All together, these different groups account for well more than a majority of undergraduates. And while some may argue that there are some innate disadvantages to online education, for some types of students, it is clear that online platforms are advantageous.

Brown’s peer schools have recognized the widespread student need and have taken action. The University of Pennsylvania now offers a full undergraduate degree online, while Harvard and MIT have pushed free, universal access to online courses through their platform edX. These examples are only two among hundreds of others from top schools across the country. Although Brown also partners with edX — and is obligated to produce 12 courses by May 2020 — thus far only five courses have been offered, and the last course ended in Fall 2018.

As part of its effort to implement online materials and fully-online courses into the University’s curriculum, Brown has built up a sizable team solely dedicated to developing online course content. Within the Computing and Information Services department, Brown has an entire team under Catherine Zabriskie, senior academic technology officer, that works with professors to bring more content online and enhance the learning experience of students. The team of over 30 staff members under Zabriskie integrates media, Canvas functionality and other features into classes and helps professors fully understand the range of options available to them. The group was originally only responsible for integrating online course content into existing courses. But in summer 2019, the team within the School of Professional Studies that helped bring courses fully online for Brown’s programs within that school was moved under CIS, further enhancing the department’s capabilities. In addition to CIS, the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning offers similar help to faculty members, though it does not exclusively focus on online resources.

Despite both student need and this strong institutional backing, Brown has yet to make a significant foray into online courses for undergraduates. This disparity may be explained by faculty reluctance to shift from in-person to online learning. The hesitance towards online learning is understandable. Professors are required to completely shift their lecture material online, a time-intensive and often difficult process with no universally-accepted methods of doing so. Faculty members are forced to shift their schedules to accommodate the lack of rigid structure associated with the course and the scheduling needs of the students taking it, Taylor said. Furthermore, professors are comfortable teaching using methods that they have implemented for decades, which have been successful for generations of students including themselves, and they are thus reluctant to change.

With each of these fundamental barriers blocking online course implementation, it’s surprising that any professors at Brown are willing to teach online. If anything, there is a strong disincentive to try teaching new online courses, especially for faculty members seeking tenure that are evaluated on their teaching.

Brown must therefore lower these barriers and provide incentives to professors to teach online. Adventurous faculty members should be rewarded with reduced teaching loads. Online professor availability should be limited to certain hours, giving faculty members the ability to manage their time more effectively. While some professors do this naturally, a university-mandated offline period would lessen the hesitance from faculty members. Tenure-track professors should be rewarded for experimenting with online teaching, easing the fear of failure at a critical juncture in their careers. The University should also hire faculty members who wish to teach online, rather than attempting to persuade current members to change their teaching style. Together, these changes will help Brown experiment with online methods of learning more efficiently and effectively.

When choosing courses to bring online, the University would be smart to increase its focus on courses with large enrollments but limited teaching capacity, as well as those with material that does not change from year to year, ensuring that online content is reusable. Furthermore, experimenting across departments rather than a select few will expose the greatest possible number of students to fully-online methods.

Brown can strengthen its mission to provide the highest quality education through innovative and creative means online. Moreover, taking these efforts one step further and providing material to the broader world will ensure that Brown has a lasting impact on the global learning community.

Jonathan Douglas ’20 can be reached at jonathan_douglas@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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