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Future of Brown's edX online courses uncertain

Brown offered only 5 edX courses since May 2017, next steps still undetermined

Since the University partnered with an online platform that offers free courses to over 20 million users in May 2017, only five BrownX courses have been offered. At the start of the partnership with edX, the University was contractually obliged to offer at least 12 edX courses by the end of May 2020, The Herald previously reported.

Offering 12 courses “was in the contract but it was kind of a goal,” said Karen Sibley MAT’81 P’07 P’12 P’17, dean of the School of Professional Studies and vice president for strategic initiatives. “We weren’t able to achieve the goal … but edX hasn’t been difficult about that.”

“It’s a pretty significant investment of time and resources, so the thought is: let’s rechannel that energy and focus on, instead, creating more online courses on our campus that could be for credit, for on campus student learners,” said Shankar Prasad MA’03 PhD’06, deputy provost for global engagement and strategic initiatives. The University is still determining the next steps for the edX initiative.

The partnership with edX intended to promote digital teaching and learning at the University, “reach an audience of learners around the world” and “increase Brown’s visibility” globally, Prasad said.

The first BrownX course, “The Ethics of Memory,” was taught by Associate Professor of English Ravit Reichman in July 2017. The latest course, “Introduction to Engineering and Design,” began November 2018 and was taught by Adjunct Lecturer in Engineering Karen Haberstroh ’95.

The edX initiative was originally overseen by the University’s Steering Committee for Digital Teaching and Learning and was directly managed by the School of Professional Studies, Sibley said. The Steering Committee was responsible for the “higher-up landscape for online education, like Coursera and edX,” Sibley added, while a team of “instructional designers” in SPS worked closely with professors to produce the BrownX courses.

After a summer 2019 organizational change, the Steering Committee was dissolved. The edX partnership fell under the purview of the Office of the Provost, and Computing and Information Services took on digital learning initiatives, Sibley said.

Professor of English James Egan said that developing his BrownX course “Fantastic Places, Unhuman Humans” was a “natural evolution” for him, as he was already in the process of developing the materials for a “Brown-only online course.” Still, Egan said, “it felt like a lot of resources … that could have been devoted to something else Brown could get more out of.”

“Fantastic Places, Unhuman Humans”  was “gamified,” immersing students in a virtual world in which they completed sequential learning tasks, Egan said. The teaching approach was “innovative and challenging,” and the course was well-supported by the Office of the Provost and the digital design team.

Vice Chairman of Medicine for the Alpert Medical School Fred Schiffman taught the BrownX course “Artful Medicine: Art’s Power to Enrich Patient Care” and planned to offer two more BrownX courses that would investigate music and food as medicine.

The development of the courses, however, was paused indefinitely, Schiffman said. “It is in my belief that the School of Professional Studies decided, somehow, that (these BrownX courses) were put on hold … I’d love to continue to do this, for sure.”

Teaching on edX “felt like a community of learners in a way one never really expected,” Schiffman said. Despite the large class size, “I felt I could connect (with students) through emails and responses. It was a big surprise how much I learned from my students.”


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