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Faculty embraces online course expansion

Published: Friday, February 7, 2014

Updated: Friday, February 7, 2014 08:02

Members of the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering faculty voted in December to adopt a new policy on online courses. 

The policy outlines a two-tier system for approving online courses and expands the web-based courses that count toward graduation from two to five, which represents a semester’s worth of courses, according to the chair of the Education Policy Committee (EPC) David Hammer. 

“We wanted to make room for online courses in the schedule,” Hammer said. “We wanted to create an atmosphere that would allow experimentation and innovation.”

The new policy replaces a temporary one that faculty adopted two years ago when they agreed to revisit the policy in the future, Hammer explained. 

Hammer created an ad hoc committee to gather data on course value and map a better policy, said Associate Dean Jean Herbert, who represents undergraduate education on the EPC. After a year of discussions and reviews, the new policy was presented at a faculty meeting and agreed upon without hesitation.

“Summer classes that have been offered were good, and people have been responding well,” Herbert said. “A couple of [instructors] had followed up with data evaluations and found that they were effective courses.”

The policy also describes a two-step process for reviewing new online classes, Hammer said. Faculty who wish to introduce online classes must submit course plans that show evidence of interactivity and ability to verify student identification. Teachers, therefore, must be able to insure that enrolled students cannot hire other students to do classwork for them.

After running a pilot course as many as two times, instructors may choose to gain permanent approval by submitting student work or other proof that students are learning, like live chat logs or discussion boards. Similar systems for approval by the curriculum committee already exist for non-online courses, Hammer explained. 

Hammer hopes the approval process will ensure that new online courses effectively promote learning.

“There’s a lot of skeptical faculty saying, ‘We don’t want to have weak courses,’” he said. “‘We don’t want to be condoning something that doesn’t have real depth to it.’”

Hammer emphasized the importance of interactivity in class, explaining that this separated Tufts courses from massive open online courses (MOOCs), which can serve as many as 10,000 students. 

“So much of the big conversation around the country is around these massive online courses, and from our perspective we don’t see evidence that that’s a model that leads to real learning,” he said. “If I had 750 students, if I had 7,500 students...I’m not going to hear and respond to student thinking.”

Currently, online classes at Tufts are mostly limited to the summer program, Herbert said. 

“Anything offered during the academic year would be considered more of a blended course,” she said. “People might be using online ways of communicating with students, certainly through Trunk and that sort of thing, but [those classes] wouldn’t typically be defined as online courses.”

More online courses at a graduate level could allow for online professional communities, where instructors film and review each other’s teaching techniques, Hammer said. 

Online classes could help teachers who feel more comfortable in text-based interactions and allow them to reach undergraduate students learning from a distance. Because such courses have flexible timing, web-based classes also help eliminate scheduling difficulties, Hammer added. 

Senior Manuela Rojas, who this summer took professor George Ellmore’s plants and humanity course from abroad, said she believed she learned just as much online as she could have in a regular lecture class. 

“I think the difficulty of normal Tufts classes is maintained,” Rojas said. “If it’s a hard class, then you have to have a lot of self-discipline to take the time out of your day to read everything. It’s very easy for you to not prioritize it, but it’s going to be just as hard as it is at school.”

During their next meeting, faculty will begin discussions about permitting students to transfer up to two online course credits from other schools — something which the university currently does not allow, according to Herbert.

“My personal feeling is that ...we rely on the other schools’ curriculum committees to approve courses that they offer,” she said. “I don’t see why it should be any different for online courses.”

Both Hammer and Herbert said they believed the new policy would make way for new learning opportunities. 

“I think there’s just a general trend that we want to be part of the 21st century, and technology is a reality that could really benefit pedagogy,” Herbert said.

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