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Brown’s online education progress slow but steady

Full-credit online courses to be offered in fall 2016, winter session 2017 as online learning advances

While online education initiatives have recently generated less talk than other University plans, progress on the issue is inching forward. Perhaps most notably, the University is offering faculty members course relief should they design online courses, and a number of online, full-credit courses will be taught during the 2016-2017 academic year, said  Taylor, professor of English.

Taylor is currently taking time off from teaching to design her first online-only iteration of a writing workshop to be taught during the academic year.

In addition, the Committee on Digital Teaching and Learning, formed by former Provost Vicki Colvin, is preparing to take on new faculty members, said Karen Sibley MAT’81 P’07 P’12 P’17, dean of the School of Professional Studies.

The committee will also hold a series of lectures on the subject starting Feb. 24, said University Librarian Harriette Hemmasi.

Path to digital

When Colvin created it, the Committee on Digital Teaching and Learning was charged with continuing the “lively conversation about online learning,” said Dean of the College Maud Mandel.

The fact that the University is adding new members to the committee demonstrates that University leadership is aware of the “transition in higher education” towards digital spaces, Sibley said. The committee will inform leadership to “take appropriate action to move Brown forward,” she added.

In the past, Colvin and former Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron spearheaded efforts to adopt these digital initiatives. But their departures have not affected the University’s ability to move forward on digital plans, Sibley said.

The University has taken an “appropriately cautious” approach to online teaching and learning to ensure that efforts align with student and faculty interests, Hemmasi said.

Summarizing the goals behind this approach, Sibley said, “The University’s responsibility is to maintain an appropriate level of currency with digital learning and teaching technologies in order to deliver a top-quality level of education now and in the future.”

Currently, there are no active MOOCs — massive, open, online courses — offered by the University on Coursera, Mandel said, adding that faculty members could resurrect past courses if they chose to do so.

Sibley attributes this “pause” to the University’s shifting its focus away from the “big outreach efforts” that MOOCs entail, aiming instead to better serve current students.

The debut of MOOCs a few years ago was equivalent to “a jump in the pool,” Hemmasi said.

Compared to peer institutions’ digital efforts, the University’s are similar, but Brown has “a little less happening than others” on the digital front, Sibley said.

“Unlike some schools, our focus is not on increasing revenue but on our own students and what fits with this cultural environment,” Hemmasi said. “If there is revenue, it’s a by-product,” she added.

Working with faculty

The University aims to “not push too much but also enable faculty and students to experiment,” Hemmasi said. “There needs to be this proving ground” that an online initiative does work.

The University is “actively supporting faculty” exploring online initiatives, but “we’re not necessarily pushing it,” Mandel said.

Sibley noted that one of the barriers to online education at the University is “mystery,” because faculty members “don’t have experience and don’t know what it means to create and teach online courses.” Configuring a digital course can be time-consuming, which also prevents faculty members from taking on the challenge, Sibley added.

The committee is putting together a new website on which faculty members will be able to find tools and information about online education, Mandel said.

The committee has overseen the creation of a three-part spring lecture series, entitled Teaching and Learning in the Digital Environment, aimed at bringing more visibility to online initiatives, Hemmasi said. Scheduled for Feb. 24, the first event is a faculty panel comprised of Taylor, Gita Pensa, a clinical assistant professor at the Warren Alpert School of Medicine, Andy van Dam, professor of computer science, and Pedro Dal Bo, associate professor of economics. The panel will be moderated by Mandel, Hemmasi wrote in a follow-up email. The other two speakers are Sanjay Sarma from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Candace Thille from Stanford University, Hemmasi wrote.

Dal Bo pointed to costs as a deterrent to digital innovation. “Lowering the cost of using the technology would increase the amount of faculty using it,” he said.

Creating classes

Online learning presents professors with a host of pedagogical options, some of which faculty members have already started embracing.

Instead of MOOCs, a blended model of learning, which combines online and in-class instruction, has been implemented in certain programs, such as the executive master’s programs offered by the School of Professional Studies, Sibley said. The executive master’s programs enable mid-career professionals access to Brown’s scholarship, blending on-campus experiences with time online, Sibley added.

Another digitally enhanced model is the flipped classroom. In a flipped classroom, students watch video lectures at home, using class time to work collaboratively and discuss assignments with both their peers and a professor. Dal Bo has used this model in a section of ECON1110: “Intermediate Microeconomics” for the past few years.

“Face-to-face time among students is essential, so using technology to free time to have meaningful discussions is beautiful,” Dal Bo said.

Taylor said the University has provided her with incentives to develop online courses. With a grant this spring, she is released from teaching one of her courses to develop a fall course that will be offered online.

She is currently reshaping a writing workshop, ENGL1030: “The Thoughtful Generalist,” such that it can be taught entirely online for full credit in fall 2016.

Taylor has experience working with digital learning. She made her ENGL0930: “Introduction to Creative Nonfiction” course a hybrid class, in which half of the class was online and the other half was in person, during spring 2014. But she wasn’t content with the outcome: “We were half in cyberspace, half in class. I felt as if we were half-baked,” Taylor said. “Either we were all or nothing.”

But Taylor thinks “The Thoughtful Generalist” — which usually draws many pre-medical and computer science students who want to do a writing workshop — will turn out better as an online-only class.

“I hope it’s going to target students who don’t mind not being in classrooms and prefer computers,” she said.

There will be several other online courses taught during the 2016-2017 academic year, all of which will be for full credit, Taylor wrote in an email to the Herald.

The University will also offer a small number of winter term courses next year, some of which will be either fully online or hybrid, Mandel said.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Elizabeth Taylor, professor of English, is not currently teaching. In fact, she is teaching one course while preparing her online course for the fall. The Herald regrets the error. 



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