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U. to pilot online courses this summer

The University takes its first step into the realm of online undergraduate education today with the announcement that Brown will join the online course platform Coursera and will also offer some introductory summer classes online for credit. The classes will begin next year. These pilot programs will be publicly announced to the Brown community today in an email from Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron, who informed faculty members of the changes at last night's faculty meeting.

The decision stemmed from a June report by the Ad Hoc Committee on Online Education that included both programs in a list of six recommendations. Bergeron chaired the seven-member committee, which was convened by Provost Mark Schlissel P'15 in January to investigate a wide range of topics related to learning and instruction in the digital age. Schlissel made the final decision to move forward with the programs, Bergeron said in an interview.

The projects are only pilots, Bergerson said, that will determine how and whether expanded use of the technologies would benefit students at the University and beyond its gates. "In some cases, the best way to try to figure out what you should be doing is by trying to do it," Bergeron said. An important philosophy at Brown, she added, is that "you need to remain open, open to new things."

In joining Coursera, Brown adds its name to a list of universities including Princeton, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and the California Institute of Technology, which currently offer free, not-for-credit courses to thousands of students across the globe. The platform combines broadcast lectures with online activities, tests and peer-reviewed written assignments.

The classes on Coursera - as well as on competing platform edX, which Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology use - are commonly referred to as massive open online courses, or MOOCs. They have often been portrayed by admirers as a way to democratize education and spread knowledge on a grand scale, while others have criticized the platform as an ineffectual mode of instruction and grading.

Brown's partnership with Coursera, which first approached the University in April, will be announced publicly later this month, Bergeron said. The first three University professors slated to offer courses on the platform are Professor of Classics Susan Alcock, Professor of Computer Science Philip Klein and Professor of Comparative Literature Arnold Weinstein. Bergeron said their classes will bring a fresh perspective to Coursera, which has often been used more for data-based math and science classes. "There is something, I think, very exciting about just having some excellent Brown faculty who don't do things by the book represented on the platform," she said.

The University chose Coursera because the platform "already had a number of institutional partners" when it approached Brown, Bergeron added in an email to The Herald. EdX, one of Coursera's competitors, only operated at MIT and Harvard last spring, though the platform added the University of California at Berkeley this summer. Unlike Coursera, edX is nonprofit.

The committee's report also noted the opportunity for such a platform to promote the University's brand internationally.

The pilot project to offer online introductory courses to Brown undergraduates for credit constitutes a less common and more extensive adoption of new technology by the University. In 2013, some summer classes will be offered wholly online, marking the first time the University will award non-transfer credit for courses taken outside the traditional classroom.

The committee's report made clear that the project is the initial step on a path that has the potential to revolutionize the college experience. The report drew parallels between today's educational landscape and that of the Morrill Act, which established the United States' system of land-grant colleges and expanded access to education. "It ultimately transformed the nature and style of education in the United States," the committee wrote in the report. "There are good reasons to look back to this time in considering our current historical moment."

The move is, in part, designed to address the issue of large introductory courses, which many students take only as prerequisites, Bergeron said.

But there is some indication the decision will disappoint many on campus. The committee's recommendation came on the heels of a survey sent out to students last spring, in which 59 percent of respondents said the University should not conduct for-credit online courses, while 24 percent said it should. The committee also got student input from focus groups it conducted in May with 15 undergraduates, Bergeron said.

The committee noted and understood students' preference for in-person classes,  Bergeron said. But members wondered if courses like introductory lectures might be more effectively conducted online. "Students (in the focus groups) said, 'There are a lot of courses that we take that aren't really 'Brown' courses,'" Bergeron added. "Interestingly, there was a kind of funny consensus that seemed to grow up around the idea that ... maybe it wouldn't be so bad to have some alternative modes of instruction for those kinds of classes."

The committee's report outlined four additional recommendations beyond those addressed by the pilot projects. These are introducing "flipped" large introductory classes in which students watch lectures online at home and collaborate on problems during class, improved and streamlined technology help for faculty, upper-level seminars allowing Brown students to design online courses and a greater use of technology in language courses, including online courses for more obscure languages that are offered in conjunction with other universities. Those recommendations will be discussed and considered over the academic year, Bergeron added. 




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