Faculty prepare for first DartmouthX online classes

by Bryn Morgan | 9/30/14 6:38pm

Environmental studies professor Andrew Friedland stands in front of Baker Tower, introducing himself and encouraging students to sign up for his class. “In the 1960s, there were three billion people on earth. Today there are 7.2 billion inhabitants impacting the natural world,” he says.

“Introduction to Environmental Science” will launch on Feb. 3, 2015. But the class is not a typical 10A. Friedland’s is the first of four massive open online courses that the College will offer in 2015 through the digital learning platform edX, a partnership announced last January. More than 500 people have registered for the course so far.

Interviewed participating professors said they found that the course preparation process has given them new ways of looking at course topics, their teaching styles and how students absorb material. These lessons can be adapted to future courses taught in Hanover, they said.

The other three MOOCs are “The Engineering of Structures Around Us,” which Thayer School of Engineering professor Vicki May will teach in May 2015, English professor Don Pease and English lecturer James Dobson’s course on the American Renaissance starting in October 2015 and music department chair Steve Swayne’s opera course, whose launch date is not yet specified.

Founded in 2012 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, edX is a nonprofit that offers MOOCs to students worldwide. The consortium of edX charter members comprises more than 30 universities worldwide, including the University of California at Berkeley, Georgetown University and Cornell University, as well as universities in Japan, Australia and India.

Each MOOC instructor has a team of people working on the course design and construction process, including instructional designers, technical experts and a librarian.

Designing and preparing for online courses requires much more collaboration than preparing for a standard residential course, Friedland said, adding that the process has provided a welcome challenge. Friedland is working with instructional designer Mike Goudzwaard to finish the fourth week of the six-week course.

“This process really made me realize that not all concepts that you teach in environmental science are perfectly adapted to the lecture format,” he said, adding that he often looks to the faces of students to gauge his own effectiveness. “If you can design a class so that it’ll work well even when people aren’t in the room, it might help you be better at teaching when people are in the room.”

In an email, May said she plans to use skills gained from this experience in her Thayer classroom. May’s MOOC is based on the existing Thayer course “Integrated Design: Engineering, Architecture and Building Technology,” which she co-teaches.

“I think the MOOC provides a great way to better understand how students learn,” she wrote. “We’re planning to develop tools and resources that I will use in my residential courses.”

Friedland and Pease said that the process has expanded their teaching abilities and philosophies.

Pease said the process will reintroduce him to the material.

“For me, it’s going to be a teaching and learning experience in which the art of teaching and the art of learning are put at stake in wonderfully important ways,” Pease said. “It’s as if I’m going to re-enter a course with which I’m familiar from perspectives with which I am very unfamiliar. I’ll be thinking about this material from perspectives which will render me as much a student as they will render me a proficient teacher.”

Friedland said testers will preview the course in January and provide information to the team, which may use their feedback to alter the course before it launches.

Emily Lacroix ’15, one of four teaching assistants for Friedland’s course, said the process of creating video modules to structure the course allows it to be more flexible than a traditional lecture class. One such video documents a trip to the Dartmouth power plant, Friedland said, an opportunity that is not possible with his 90-student lecture class.

“We’re going to create a learning instrument that’ll be attentive to the different needs of different students,” Pease said. “Just as the printing press changed the way teachers and students went about the process of learning, so this new technology, not only will bring but has brought about transformations to this process.”

Pease estimates that he has taught his literature course to more than 4,000 alumni, and noted that some have since reached out to him about their desire to sit in his classroom again. The MOOC, he said, can offer them a “renewal” of that experience.

For those who prefer a more traditional learning environment, Pease said MOOCs incorporate all styles of learning, both conventional and modern.

“I don’t see this as exclusionary,” he said. “It’s not an either-or, it’s supplementary.”

Director of digital learning initiatives Josh Kim said that through partnering with edX, the College is exploring the science and analytics of how people learn, intending to integrate these discoveries into the Dartmouth classroom. The major challenge, he said, is to balance the College’s “cherished core values around a tight-knit learning community” while innovating its teaching methods and use of technology.

Lacroix, who has enrolled in several edX courses since joining the project in June, said MOOCs offer accessibility and entertainment that on-campus courses do not. Though she prefers the conventional learning experience and said the College’s MOOCs do not replace its on-campus courses, Lacroix said engaging with the MOOC preparation process has taught her a lot about the art of teaching.

“If it’s something Dartmouth continues to do and they are able to involve undergraduates, how great is it to have this added opportunity?” she said.

Friedland said that despite his initial skepticism about the dynamics of instructor accessibility and the student-teacher relationship in MOOCs, he realized that edX addresses these seemingly lost values. Through discussion boards and other platforms, enrolled students can post questions and comments for the instructor, TAs and other students to see.

The class’s international reach allows for discussion between students from diverse environments, as well as around-the-clock involvement in the course, he said.

“It’s a great initiative,” Pease said, “and it will only enrich instruction here at Dartmouth, even as it makes Dartmouth instruction available to many students outside Dartmouth. What could be better?”

Swayne was not available for comment by press time.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction appended (Oct. 1, 2014):

Don Pease will teach the course on the American Renaissance with James Dobson, not alone, as the article initially reported. The article has been corrected.