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Profs, students evaluate summer online nonfiction course

Some students said they participated more in the online format than in traditional classes

Senior Lecturer in English Elizabeth Taylor, Instructional Designer Ren Whitaker and three students from Brown’s first for-credit online course, ENGL 0180: “Introduction to Creative Nonfiction,” spoke to a group of about 25, mostly faculty and staff members, in Lippitt House Wednesday afternoon about their experiences with cyber-learning.

Fourteen students took the online class, which was a condensed, seven-week version of a nonfiction course Taylor and other English faculty members teach during the academic year.

Whitaker worked with Taylor to create weekly modules full of instructional videos and other materials that led students through their assignments and course expectations. All 14 students spent their days working jobs or internships in places like New York, Beijing and Chicago, Taylor said. At night they spent one to two hours reading, completing assignments and peer editing.

The online format made it so “it was always a part of our daily lives,” said Mark Valdez ’15, a former Herald senior staff writer who took the online course.

Valdez said students sometimes talk in circles in classroom settings, but they were forced to organize and hone their thoughts online.

“I went in thinking nothing can be better than the classroom,” Taylor said.But she found “online discussion was more eloquent and more thoughtful than classroom discussion.”

In a classroom, some students might be reluctant to participate, Taylor said, but “with online discussion, I never knew they were the shy kids.”

Another “advantage of technology is that you can multiply the professor in a way,” said Patrick Carey ’16, who took the course while working for a digital education start-up. Online teaching gave Taylor multiple mechanisms to provide individual support and feedback.

Carey received more feedback in the online class than in any other course he has taken at Brown, he said.

The students also said they appreciated Taylor’s dedication. Carey even had a phone conference with Taylor right before he went under anesthesia for a dental procedure, he said.

“I assumed I would feel less connected online to my students, but it was as if the class was a constant part of my life,” Taylor said. She might have had student conferences on a Sunday afternoon or a Tuesday night, “once I figured out what their lives were like,” Taylor said.

A man in the audience asked Taylor if there were ever time difference issues. Jingwei Wu ’14, who took the course from Beijing, laughed and said it wasn’t so bad. The concept of “flow time” — being allowed to turn assignments in within a day or so, depending on when the day ends — provided enough time for reading and completing assignments with care, Wu said.

The class met in person the first weekend of the semester. Whitaker and Taylor attended, and the group had cookies and discussed what worked and what did not. “We have all this rich fodder to improve the next round, be it summer or spring,” Whitaker said.

“I thought the class was such a success,” Taylor said. “But when I asked the group if they would take an online class back at Brown, 100 percent said no. They said, ‘It’s not the Brown experience’” to take an online course while on campus.

Taylor is working with Whitaker to incorporate the lessons from the summer into a hybrid class for the spring semester. “I’m trying to rethink how I set up the discussions,” Taylor said.

Her plan is to have one class conducted online each week and one that takes place in a classroom — but she hopes the structure will be meaningful rather than formulaic. “I want it to be that online will be most effective for whatever we’re doing on Tuesday,” Taylor said.


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