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Brown goes virtual for high school

Imagine taking virtual field trips across the globe, engaging in cyberspace explorations of anatomy labs and working on transnational group projects between China, Russia, Canada and Sweden. And imagine you are still in high school.

High school students looking for a challenge beyond what their schools offer can turn to the academic adventures available through Brown's online education program.


Beyond high school

In 2009, the Office of Continuing Education began its experiment in online education. Created specifically for high school students, the online program offers career exploration courses and courses on leadership training, as well as more traditional courses such as "DNA Science: Forensics, Food and Medicine." In total, Brown offers five no-credit online courses with a cost of $985-$2,475 depending on the course. Each is offered in the fall, spring and summer.

Dean of the Office of Continuing Education Karen Sibley, who spearheaded the project, said the program was developed for students  who have already exhausted the options available to them through their high schools and are seeking to advance their education.

"The students who come to our programs," Sibley said, "tend to be eager learners — bright students interested in their education."

The virtual venture is a means of "exploring quality education," Sibley said.

Teaming up with the Rhode Island-based online software development company LogicBay, Sibley and Brown professors have been working to develop online courses.

"It's good to support neighbors," Sibley said of the local company. "We are treading on new ground. It is nice to have a guide."


‘Exciting and risky'

The online courses system has accepted more than 200 enrollments in the past year, according to Sibley.

But each course comes with a price tag, and the University is currently unable to provide financial aid, she said.

"Overall, I really enjoyed the course, but I thought the cost was a bit excessive," said Joclyn Goldberg, who took "So You Want to be a Doctor?" last summer.

Sibley said the objective moving forward is to "continue to think about diverse courses that express Brown's curriculum," and "effectively represent Brown" as an educational institution.

Online education, for Sibley, is both "exciting and risky at the same time."

Stephen Smith, professor emeritus of family medicine, said he is confident in the success of Brown's online education.

"The proof is in the pudding," he said. "The pudding is student feedback."

Sibley also emphasized the positive reaction from students.

"Overall," she said, the online students have given "pretty positive responses."

Andrew Ninh, who took "So You Want to be a Doctor?" in the fall of 2009, is an example.

"Even after one year, I can still remember what I learned from the course," he said. "And the enjoyment of taking and completing the course never fades."


Summer at Brown, anywhere

The first course to be tested online was "So You Want to be a Doctor?" one of the most popular courses offered during the Summer at Brown program, which also serves high school students.

Smith, who  teaches "So You Want to be a Doctor?" during the summer, said Sibley approached him about offering his course online two years ago.

Smith said he happily accepted. But the challenges of online learning are many. Smith described the difficulty coordinating real-time class meetings, keeping students from drifting away from course expectations and addressing the inevitable technical errors when using technology.

Online education is "a lot different than in a traditional classroom where I am in charge," Smith said. With an online course, "you are really working as a team."

This is especially true when working with a large number of online students, as Smith did during last summer's "blockbuster" enrollment of 80 students in his course.

The broad range of students that the online courses attract is another advantage to online education, especially considering that Smith's summer course is capped at 70 students. Online enrollment allows students who have other commitments or can not spend the summer on campus to access the course, he said.

Overall, Smith said he believes that Brown is achieving success in the online education field — and his students agree.

Benming Zhang, a rising junior at Choate Rosemary Hall, a college preparatory school in Connecticut, took the course this past summer. He did so in conjunction with another summer program at the University of Cambridge, while also rowing with a crew team. The structure of online education was a definite incentive, he wrote in an e-mail to the The Herald.

"The positive aspect of this course was it was laid back," Zhang wrote. "Every assignment had a deadline, and I did not have to constantly worry about completing anything during my day. And it's convenient because I can control my time easier and fit in my summer plans without disruptions."

While the retention rates for most online courses are around 25 percent, Smith said, the rate for his course last summer was 93 percent.

Despite the modifications made to the course, such as virtual field trips to anatomy labs instead of actually touching a human heart or brain, both Smith and his students are pleased with the online course.

"I think that for medicinal studies, a virtual classroom would be great to serve as an introductory basis for teaching fundamentals," Zhang wrote.

"The course has helped them decide that medicine is something that they want to explore," Smith said.


Virtual interaction

Adjunct Lecturer in Political Science Minh Luong teaches the online course, "Lessons in Leadership: What History's Great Leaders Can Teach Us Today."

His experience training professionals as an industry training director, combined with his interest in online education, motivated him to develop the online course, Luong said.

"Online learning has so much potential," said Luong, citing the possibility of exploring the world through pre-screened field trips and including lectures from individuals otherwise inaccessible due to geographic location and time.

The question of student interaction is a common concern among those hesitant about online education.

Maddie Shankle, a junior at Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, Ten., took Brown's "Exploring Engineering" course online this past summer.

"While online courses offers study of very specific interests and more flexible schedules, I am strongly in favor of small classroom-style learning," she wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. "Online courses were never an unenjoyable experience, but I do prefer direct contact with my teachers and peers," she added.

Luong offered a different perspective on this concern.

Compared to a traditional classroom environment, "my online students do a better job at shaping questions," Luong said, adding that he is better able to answer questions with the whole internet at his disposal.

Luong also said he noticed an increase in participation because online educational platforms allow for precise tracking of student activity.

 "The virtual experience has a lot of stability," said Luong.

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