Light & Verity

Yale moves forward in online courses

What’s a MOOC, anyway? The university sticks a toe in the water to find out.

Stephen Savage

Stephen Savage

View full image

The most talked-about trend in online education today is “massive open online courses”—MOOCs—free courses that sometimes enroll hundreds of thousands of students around the world. Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and other elite schools now offer MOOCs, some featuring prominent members of their faculty. Yale, according to Yale College dean Mary Miller ’81PhD, is planning to join them in the fall.

While other Ivy League and research universities leaped into large-scale online education initiatives, Yale moved more slowly. As recently as December, a report from a Yale College committee recommended that Yale expend its efforts primarily in small-scale, seminar-style online courses. Since 2011, Yale College’s summer program has been piloting “synchronous” online courses that simulate traditional seminar meetings (“No Mickey Mouse. No Back Row,” September/October). Classes are capped at 20 tuition-paying students, who interact online at a scheduled meeting time with their professor. And they earn credit.

The committee recommends expanding that experiment: the summer program will increase the number of online courses offered from 8 to 14 this year, and Miller hopes to see “one or two” online classes scheduled for the fall semester. (Recently, Duke, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, and several other universities announced that they will offer a program called Semester Online, with live, for-credit classes in a format similar to Yale’s.)

Yale also has the Open Yale Courses initiative, which features free online video recordings of lectures by Yale professors—an open-access, no-charge learning experience that has some similarities to the MOOCs. MOOCs, however, are designed as a more complete package, with quizzes and exercises “graded” by computer, and with tools for online chat groups with other participants.

If Yale has moved more slowly on MOOCs than other institutions, says music professor Craig Wright, cochair of the report committee, it’s because “Yale is being cautious, and it’s being thorough. This field is changing so quickly that it would be foolhardy to attach yourself to a plan and be inflexible about it.” Adds Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service at the University of Illinois–Springfield, “In the beginning, there will be mistakes made. We can’t know what they’ll be, so each institution has to decide for themselves when they jump in.”

The report recommended that the university identify and offer a “MOOC platform for Yale faculty who wish to experiment with this form of pedagogical innovation.” The choice of platform is now the only step remaining before Yale announces its MOOC plan, says Miller.

“Whatever we say today,” she adds, “is not going to be the be-all and end-all on this fast-moving subject.”

The comment period has expired.