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Online alliance reaches crossroads

Universities weigh budgets, accessibility in online education quest.


The announcement last September seemed innocuous enough: Oxford, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale were each pitching in $3 million to offer a few online courses for alumni, with vague promises of a broader scope in the future. All four universities already boasted some form of distance or alumni education; at Yale, the Association of Yale Alumni had been offering online courses for two years. This Alliance for Lifelong Learning would share knowledge—and risk. But, a year later, with 394 students across the globe packing into the first 10 classes, the honeymoon is coming to an end. Yesterday's surprising news that Princeton would be leaving the alliance, coupled with continued ambiguity about who should be able to take the Alliance's courses, at what price, and for how much credit, hint at the battles to come.

At the heart of it all is Herbert Allison, PC '65. Last October, Allison came on board as chief executive officer for the Alliance, even though his new employer's assets totaled little more than 10 times the salary he once commanded as president of Merrill Lynch before retiring in 1999. "I don't get options in this job, but the psychological income is very, very high," he told the Wall Street Journal at the time.

Although he is pushing 60, Allison now finds himself and his team working the long hours of any start-up venture in pursuit of a vision. "There are many people—very, very talented people—who can never hope to step on one of these campuses, but they are fully capable of benefiting from this type of challenging educational experience. So, if we can do this and build a bond between these alumni and their educational institution, then that would be very fulfilling," he explained. Ironically, it is tension about just these sorts of issues that may have pulled Princeton away.

FOR THE MOST PART, THE ALLIANCE'S FIRST YEAR HAS gone well. Each university e-mailed a select group of alumni, and a third of those invited to participate enrolled. Logistically, the rollout suffered from no more than the usual handful of technical glitches. Students have been viewing lectures, completing assignments, taking tests, and participating in live chats and asynchronous message boards, while graduate students or professors moderate the classes. Professors and administrators who work with the Alliance praise its experimental approach. The courses, from professors at each of the four schools, vary in length (a few weeks to over a semester), in size (26 to 80 people), in content (immunology to architecture), and in medium (CD-ROM and VHS). "We are but a little way into the forest," Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, BR '68, GRD '72, said. "You want a level of experiment sufficient to tell you what the advantages are." Allison promised to make the Alliance's findings public once there was a statistically significant sample.

Feedback from these experiments will be a key factor in how the Alliance expands. The biggest worry of those teaching the classes is that online discussion formats seem incapable of replicating the experience of a classroom. Marie Borroff, who offers an English course through the Alliance, also hopes that technology will someday be able to capture the nuances of personal interaction. "Whenever I teach online, I will miss the in-the-flesh encounter," she said.

With this in mind, the online MBAs that Duke University's Fuqua School of Business has offered since 1996 involve extensive face-to-face contact. And in developing the platform for the course web sites, the emphasis was on communication tools, rather than the information being delivered. Associate Dean Jim Gray explained, "What's best about this approach is

the ability of the student to keep on the job. It also allows the student-business-person to travel." However, Duke's president still feels that undergraduate education cannot be replicated online.
Diana Kleiner spent 18 months developing the CD-ROM `eClavdia' to accompany her online course.

Similarly, Cornell and Harvard both have online classes for credit, but these are through already-established extension schools that have no parallel at Yale. Even with such a limited scope, Cornell's administration had to make several concessions about the structure of the program before the faculty was satisfied. Out of the Alliance members, only Oxford offers any sort of undergraduate degree online.

"Maybe when the video technology is good enough that we can have a virtual classroom—that is, where anyone can raise their hand and ask the professor a question in the middle of the lecture, or discuss in groups with other students, we'll be able to say that the educational experience is good enough to give out course credit," David Pizarro, GRD '03, one of the instructors for Peter Salovey's "Intelligent Emotions" course, said.

In the meantime, reaching recreational students may be the only extent to which Yale pursues online education. In these cases, online interaction is better than none at all. As Allison puts it, "People want to be intellectually challenged. The real benefit is that of community." And for their part, professors seem glad to have an audience. "I love the idea of reaching out, particularly to our alumni, who are far-flung all over the world. I love the idea of using the vividness of technology to pique people's interest and passion for psychology," Salovey raved. Diana E.E. Kleiner, deputy provost for the arts, who created the Alliance course "eClavdia" about the women of ancient Rome, was equally enthusiastic. "Doing a course online just seemed right to me at this particular juncture because it enabled me to reach and interact with a broader audience," she said.

HOWEVER, THE MODEL THE ALLIANCE HAS CHOSEN fundamentally limits audience size. Providing interaction with professors and elaborate educational content comes with a hefty price tag, so that, even if the Alliance decides to let the general public in, it will charge between $250 and $400 per course, depending on its depth. Though these prices are higher than the $95 AYA charged for its earlier courses, Pizarro hopes that students paying the higher tuition will increase the quality of participation.

Whether some portions of the courses might be available for free is still under discussion. At present, selected web links grouped by topic are all the Alliance offers to the general public. Dean Brodhead maintained, "It's not our desire to make sure that nobody ever benefits from anything one of us knows." But—apart from the notable exception of providing last year's DeVane lectures online, which received about 100 hundred hits a week—Yale's record is less than promising. defaults to being unavailable outside of Yale, a decision that Instructional Technology Group Director Edward Kairiss says was the result of discussions with faculty. Although professors can easily make their courses' pages viewable by the public, only a handful have done so. As Stephen Colvin, director of undergraduate studies of classics, explained of his own page, "I just didn't change the default. If people in Ulan Bator want to follow Latin 300, I'd be perfectly happy." When people outside of Yale expressed interest, Engineering Professor Mark Reed went ahead and made the notes for his "Science Fiction, Science Fact" available to the world. "I have a hard time understanding why someone wouldn't make it available—it is just the course notes," he said. Even at Harvard, all course web pages, excepting the 20 percent restricted by copyright, are available to the public.
Peter Salovey's course `Intelligent Emotions,' offered through the Alliance for Lifelong Learning, attracted 80 students this fall.

The decision made by Kairiss, along with the current restriction of Alliance class web pages to enrolled students, contrast sharply with the OpenCourseWare initiative (OCW) that MIT launched last March to improve undergraduate education while also providing a public good. Except where prohibited by copyright agreements, OCW will make all course web pages publicly available, and it will spend money improving the quality of information available on these sites and linking them to one another. The project's $12 million budget, coming from two large grants, puts the 27-month effort on par with the Alliance. "We explicitly decided that we did not want to launch a major program offering online, credit-bearing courses," Interim Management Board Chair at MIT Steven Lerman explained. "What we, as a faculty, valued the most was the intense, highly personalized educational experience that happens in a residential setting. This will remain the primary focus of our faculty's energies."

But while MIT works on a separate lifelong learning effort called Knowledge Updates, Yale continues to put all of its online eggs in one cyber-basket. Asked about OCW, Levin responded, "We might certainly explore also doing something like that." The high costs and constraints of the Alliance model may be the reason other universities have opted out to pursue breadth instead of depth. Harvard, although involved in the Alliance's formative discussions, was not prepared to commit. Its own lifelong learning effort, Harvard@Home, was developed to complement its Department of Continuing Education and the already available course web pages. The format "offers less intensive exposure to a greater variety of subjects and ideas, engages more of our faculty, would complement these programs more effectively, and would be of greater interest to more alumni," Harvard's Dean for Research and Information Technology Paul C. Martin explained.

Princeton's departure from the Alliance sounds like an effort to match MIT and Harvard. "We have decided to proceed in a way that provides broad access to electronic learning materials and courseware on a non-proprietary basis," Princeton's Provost Amy Gutmann said in a press release. A new vice president appointed to head this effort will focus on developing tools for using technology in the classroom and for making course materials and lectures available online.

PRINCETON'S DECISION TO FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY applicable to its regular undergraduate classes touches on another key dispute. One argument holds that having professors focus on such online courses takes them away from their regular teaching commitments. "Every program draws on our scarcest resource—the time and energy of able educators," Martin said in explaining why Harvard has focused in the way it has.

Yale's approach is to view participating in online course development as completely external to regular academic responsibilities. "There is no teaching load reduction for this," Levin explained. "Professors who choose to participate are earning extra compensation. This is a not a substitute, though, for undergraduate teaching responsibilities." Creating a course of the caliber the Alliance requires does not have to be hugely time-consuming—Salovey was able to use lectures he videotaped for sale through the AYA several years ago—but it can be. Kleiner explains with a smile how she would stay up till 3 or 4 in the morning scanning pictures of ancient Rome for her CD-ROM. The project, done in collaboration with Yale's Center for Media Initiatives, took 18 months, and the result is a beautiful set of narrated slide shows, images, and interactive maps.

Such content developed for online courses may have a second life in enhancing undergraduate education. "I'd like to teach this on campus," Kleiner explained, envisioning supplemental trips to the art gallery and in-person discussions that emphasize the strengths of being at Yale. And Salovey noted that certain types of lectures can just be much richer online. Allison explained, "I would expect what we learn from this can benefit teaching on the campus."

But many professors at Yale, such as Nina Garrett at the Center for Language Studies, are already experimenting with ways of coupling classroom learning with online components outside of developing a complete online class. Astronomy Professor Charles Bailyn worked with CMI to have his class take a tour of an observatory via the Internet. Bailyn's project, available to the public, also received 6,000 hits from the world outside Yale.

EVEN BAILYN THINKS "IT MIGHT BE NICE" TO DO A course for the Alliance, if he could find the time. In fact, most of those interviewed, for better or worse, knew that a growing role for online learning was inevitable, even while doubting that the entire undergraduate experience would be done away with. Borroff acknowledged that education online can provide intellectual stimulation as an adaptation to modern life. "Though the personal interactions are disembodied, personalities can emerge, and lively exchanges take place nonetheless. Before we decide to disparage online teaching generally, we must consider that we—or at least we who teach and study at Yale—are highly verbal beings. More and more, the younger among us are living virtually, in words unattended by physical presence," she said. Pizzarro, too, was pragmatic. "We can only delay the inevitable; we can't stop it...We might as well do everything we can to maintain the highest standards of education in our online courses," he said.

How much of the Alliance's potential is realized remains to be seen. As controversies about credit, availability, and cost are settled, faculty will ultimately shape the University's presence online. The Alliance can make its information commercial and exclusive, or open and accessible. As Allison told the Wall Street Journal, "We have a chance to make the best in higher education available to people around the world."

Graphics by Andrew J. Hamilton.

See also:

  • Brown University statement on distance learning
    It is certainly a mistake, therefore, to attempt to ignore the impact that new technologies can have on pedagogy. In order to ensure that we are fulfilling our mission of teaching and learning, we must continue to incorporate the best pedagogical tools that new technologies have presented to us.
  • Carole Sargent
    I think that an adult learner would get ever so much more from going to a local campus of a great university (whether Ivy-league or a strong state program) and taking a class in person from a dedicated professor, than clicking on-line and basking in the reflected glory of professors from name institutions who do not know the student, and cannot possibly care about his or her individual academic progress. I do hope that Yale holds out against this trend, because it won't last long.
  • Chronicle of Higher Education
  • Another series of Yale lectures available online

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