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University expands online course offerings

Students, faculty members express mixed reaction to strategic shift as University introduces new courses

For the first time this fall, the University has added online courses for students to take during the academic year in a push to increase the learning opportunities available to students. In addition, this spring, Professor of English James Egan will be teaching the first non-writing-based online course to be offered during the regular school year. Egan’s course, ENGL 0511C: “Fantastic Places, Unhuman Humans,” will examine literature from authors like William Shakespeare and Mary Shelley with an objective of understanding how humans perceive themselves through their portrayal of monsters.

Previously, online courses were only available during summer sessions. The addition of online courses for the academic year reflects positive feedback from faculty members and students regarding online courses and the University’s desire to experiment with online education, said Karen Sibley, vice president for strategic initiatives and dean of the School of Professional Studies.

The University’s online course collection has been developing for the past few years because online education “is one of several innovative areas of higher education” that faculty members are exploring at other schools, said Dean of the College Maud Mandel. The University sees itself as being on the “cutting edge” of higher education in the country, she added.

Slow beginnings

Starting in 2013, the School of Professional Studies began working alongside faculty members to “design, produce and refine” online courses for undergraduate and graduate students, said Ren Whitaker, senior director of online learning and innovation. These faculty members initially expressed interest in teaching online courses with the desire of reaching students they normally would not have the opportunity to teach, she added.

The University has also experimented with massive open online courses — known as MOOCs — through Coursera, which allows the general public to access course lectures and materials. Arnold Weinstein, professor of comparative literature, taught his course COLT 1420T: “The Fiction of Relationship” in 2014 through Coursera. Though the public benefited from the University’s “intellectual privilege” with its partnership with Coursera, the costs of creating and running MOOCs were “prohibitive” for the University to continue using the platform, he said.

While the University is currently moving away from Coursera, last month, the Brown joined the edX consortium, a platform where faculty members can work with instructional designers to create online courses that can be shared with the world, Sibley said. But the University is not pushing a “significant agenda” with online courses. It is  instead exploring its options regarding online education, Sibley added.

Students online

Online courses offer students unique learning experiences they might miss in a traditional classroom setting, according to multiple sources. They also “free people from space and time” constraints to pursue education, Sibley said.

Online classes can “take advantage of the fact that Brown students are often scattered throughout the world,” Whitaker said. For example, online courses allow students studying abroad to  explore the communities they are in and share first-hand experiences in a way that regular classes on campus do not, she said. In the most recent summer session, the University offered eight online courses to its undergrads, including PHP 1101: “World of Food: Personal to Global Perspectives on Nutrition, Agriculture and Policy” in which students were able to study food consumption and culture in their own communities.

People around the world can also earn certain master’s degrees from Brown through one of the University’s several intensive, online master’s programs, Whitaker said. For example, those in the Executive Master in Cybersecurity program spend 16 months taking mostly online courses to earn their master’s degrees, according to the program’s website.

The main purpose of the cybersecurity program is to leverage current research in cybersecurity to educate leadership and broaden Brown’s impact beyond campus, said Roberto Tamassia, professor of computer science and executive director of the Executive Master in Cybersecurity program. Programs such as the Executive Master in Cybersecurity are catered to people who are “well into their careers” but are “looking to enhance their leadership skills or make a positive change,” Whitaker said.

“What immediately appealed to me was the blended learning model because I couldn’t … move somewhere and not work for a couple of years to get a master’s,” said Jay Flanagan EMHL’15, director of clinical transformation and quality improvement at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Since healthcare is rapidly changing, Flanagan “needed more information about where healthcare could go” to stay on the “cutting edge of understanding and driving that change,” he said. Flanagan feels he is better equipped in his current job with his EMHL degree, he added.

Students currently taking online classes have been satisfied with their experiences, especially the flexibility of online courses, which allowed them to easily pursue subject areas that fell outside of their concentration.

Shivaali Maddali ’17, a biomedical engineering concentrator, said ENGL 0930: “Introduction to Creative Nonfiction,” an online course she took over the summer, provided her with an opportunity to improve her writing skills, which she didn’t have time to work on during the regular school year.

Jiahong Sun ’17 said the fact that financial aid covered a summer online class influenced his decision to take one since he still earned a course credit without paying additional costs.

While noting that the online format would work better with some subjects than with others, Leon Lei ’20 said he believes the quality and rigor of the online course he is taking, ENGL 1030A: “The Thoughtful Generalist,” is equivalent to the quality and rigor of traditional classes. Lei also found it easier to participate in his online course because participation occurs through regular, mandatory online discussions, which allows him the time to fully develop his thoughts.

Though participation was a core part of the summer online course Sarah Gilmore ’18 took, she said she still believes that the discussions that occur in a traditional classroom setting are more natural.

Faculty feedback

Much like any typical course, participation is a vital component of online courses. When discussing the benefits online courses offer students, Egan stressed that online learning is “incredibly productive” and allows students to engage with the course material “more thoughtfully and deeply” than ever before. Co-director of the nonfiction writing program Elizabeth Taylor, who teaches “The Thoughtful Generalist,” said that in her experience, the students who identified as being extremely shy in person were often the most eloquent and articulate in her online class assignments and collaborated with their peers more easily. Additionally, though online classes may have the reputation of being easy, they can be just as intense as traditional ones because of increased accountability, Taylor said.

But some faculty members expressed their reservations about moving toward fully online courses.

“What goes on in the classroom is important,” said Ross Cheit, professor of international and public affairs and of political science, adding that face-to-face interaction is “almost impossible to duplicate online.”

Faculty members who choose to teach online courses also need to develop new skills and learn how to use technology, which can be an obstacle, said Kenneth Wong, professor of education policy and chair of the education department. Online education also requires both students and faculty members to adapt to new modes of learning, he added.

But the University’s current expansion of online courses is “a good pilot,” and these courses will “set the pace” for future courses and allow the University to learn how to best manage and utilize online teaching, he said.

The University should also prioritize making  online courses “work for Brown’s culture” of intimate classes and liberal learning, Wong added.



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