College Explores Online Education Opportunities
Issue   |   Wed, 10/17/2012 - 02:37

Amherst College may soon enter the brave new world of online education. Over the past few weeks, faculty and members of the administration have been in discussion with several consortia of colleges and universities wishing to include the College in their online courseware programs, including Coursera, a consortium founded by professors from Stanford University that offers free online courses to individuals around the world; edX, a similar program founded as a joint venture between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and 2tor, a for-profit company that offers online courses for a fee to more limited audiences.

The College is exploring all of its options to determine which programs offer the College the best opportunities to further its academic mission and improve the education it offers to students. The Committee on Educational Policy, the Committee on Faculty Computing and the Information Technology Department have all discussed the possibility of online courseware and have met with representatives from the various organizations wishing to work with the College. In addition, at the most recent faculty, President Carolyn Martin engaged with the faculty and sought their input on the issue of expanding the College into the online world. President Martin said that she saw online education as an opportunity for the College to experiment with innovative pedagogy and help shape the policy and direction of an online learning initiative.
Dean of Faculty Gregory Call also highlighted the potential of online resources to transform how professors interact with their students in the classroom.

“One of the ideas that interests me as a math professor is what is called blended learning, or flipping the classroom, thinking about different ways to present the material so you can use the time in class most effectively,” Dean Call said. “A number of groups have developed online materials for the technical scientific fields that use a blended approach, with some materials prepared in advance, such as lectures to watch before class, and then students would come into class with questions ready to ask the professor.”

Joining one of these consortia would make the College one of the first liberal arts colleges to become involved in the world of online education. Until July, only large universities like Harvard and Berkeley had offered courses on the web, but this summer Wesleyan University became the first liberal arts college to join an online courseware program when it signed on to Coursera, offering courses such as “The Modern and The Postmodern” and “The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color.”

However, with the opportunities offered by online courseware come new challenges for the College. Chief Information Officer Gayle Barton said that effectively translating the essence of the Amherst classroom to the online setting will be the most important task in any attempts to involve the College in online courseware.

“How do we take what’s happening in a classroom and how do we transport that to outside sources? How can we take what’s best of an Amherst experience and put it online? How do you create a good peer-to-peer discussion and how do promote engagement between people through the online medium?” said Barton.

In addition, some worry that online courseware has the potential to distract the faculty and divert resources away from the more important task of educating students who study on-campus. Professor Austin Sarat, of the LJST and Political Science departments, wondered about the College’s ability to adequately compensate faculty members who choose to offer online courses.

“The day’s only got so many hours in it. Is it a good use of my time? And one of the questions is how are professors going to be compensated? Is the College going to give them release time? Are we going to be engaging teaching assistants in this kind of work?” asked Professor Sarat.

While the College is still in the early stages of exploration — it is unlikely that online courseware would arrive at the College until after next semester — the faculty and administration will continue to meet with various organizations to gather information about online education, including an open meeting Wednesday with representatives from edX. President Martin said that any final decisions would be made on the basis of “interest, input and confidence that participation would be valuable to the College.”

Professor Sarat stressed the need for openness and conversation in the decision-making process.

“I think the College needs to make a decision. Do we make this opportunity available to our faculty? The institution has to make a decision about whether it wants to lend its brand to this experiment in education. I think having faculty members go to these meetings and hearing the voice of the community is the right way to decide. President Martin was very open about it in the faculty meeting. She didn’t just sit in her office and decide to do this. She opened a conversation on campus, and I think that’s the right way to do this,” said Professor Sarat.