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Details: Benton Scholars, Online Education Symposium

By Peter Tschirhart on September 15, 2014


As part of a semester-long program to explore online education and its implications for liberal arts institutions, the Benton Scholars are hosting visits from three experts in the field, each of whom will bring a very different perspective to the conversation:

  1. Thursday, Sept. 18 (4:30pm, Lawrence 20): Dr. Fiona Hollands, Columbia University and author of an in-depth study on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), investigates the goals of institutions that are developing and delivering MOOCs, their costs and impact on educational outcomes, and expectations for whether and how this phenomenon may change the landscape of learning over the next few years. The full report is here.
  2. Monday, Oct. 20 (4:30 PM, Lawrence 20): Dr. George Siemens, Director of the Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge (LINK) Research Lab at the University of Texas in Arlington, has been a pioneer in online education and is author of Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age and Knowing Knowledge. His blog can be found here.
  3. Monday, Oct. 27 (4:30 PM, Persson Auditorium): Dr. Marc Bousquet, Assoc. Prof. Department of English, Emory University, author of How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, and editor of The Politics of Information; The Electronic mediation of Social Change and Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers. His website is here.

We welcome anyone interested in these topics to participate through any of several different venues:

  1. Come to the presentations! There will be ample time for discussion during and after the presentations, and a reception afterward. Times and places are listed above
  2. Listen to the presentations online. They will be livestreamed through the Colgate EdX site. You can sign up here.  The site is open, and has the following resources available:
    1. A list of readings relevant to the seminar by Dr. Hollands.
    2. Discussion questions designed by Dr. Hollands in preparation for the seminar.
    3. An open discussion forum to begin conversations.
  3. Submit questions at any time before or during the presentations by emailing: ols@colgate.edu
  4. Watch the presentations later on our EdX site. They will be archived for later viewing.
  5. Join-in conversations during and after the presentation, also at the EdX site. We invite Colgate students, faculty, and alumni, as well as individuals from our peer institutions, to participate. We hope to generate an ongoing conversation that will benefit everyone.

Please join us as we explore this important issue in higher education today. Should you have any questions, feel free to contact either Karen Harpp or Peter Tschirhart.

Benton Summer Project: Reflections, Part III

By Peter Tschirhart on September 5, 2014

A small group of Benton Scholars took MOOCs during the summer of 2014. Participation was voluntary, and no Colgate course credit was granted. After finishing, we asked each student to write a response capturing their thoughts and reactions to this experience. Selected responses are reproduced below. Please note: the opinions expressed here are those of students–not the Benton Scholars program or Colgate University more generally.

Click here to find out more about the project behind these posts. Click here to learn more about the upcoming Online Education Symposium being sponsored by the Benton Scholars program.

Sid Wadhera ‘17:

The MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) I took this summer through the World Bank, “Risk and Opportunity: Managing Risk for Development,” was very interesting because it functioned very similarly to classes I’ve taken at Colgate University. There was a recommended schedule for students to follow, which basically encompassed readings, video lectures, and then quizzes. The way that it was recommended to us was that the student should read the required text (usually from the World Bank Development Report), watch the accompanying lecture that expanded on the material, and then take the quiz on the material. This is very similar to classes I’ve taken in the Economics, Political Science, and Core departments.

The other thing that really surprised me with the MOOC was the way it worked on student involvement. The MOOC had an interactive blog and various Google Hangouts throughout the time the class was open. The blog functioned very similarly to the Moodle Blog posts that some professors use at Colgate; the Google Hangout effectively became office hours for the individuals we saw in the online lectures. Overall, I think the MOOC process can be very similar to the process of learning in a classroom, if one follows the recommended structure.

Erin Huiting ’17:

My overall impression of the course “Bioinformatics: Life Sciences on Your Computer” [Coursera/Johns Hopkins University] was positive. The professor had engaging lectures — they were relatively short, but very effective — that were accompanied by readings, a discussion, and practice problems. There was also an assignment and quiz each week. The course was five weeks long, so a lot of material was covered! In the end, I learned great computer science skills, as well as information on biological sciences.

I think I had such a positive experience because the course focus was computer science, so I was able to explore databases. The databases allowed me to predict genes, determine structures of molecules, learn about DNA, and so much more. As a result, it was an extremely interactive. Also, this course will be helpful for me in the future because I will be taking cellular biology and inorganic chemistry, which directly relates to molecules and use of databases. In conclusion, I think online courses are very helpful for science, or math courses.

Katrina Bennett ’16:

Overall, I had a positive experience while taking my class, “Genomic Medicine Gets Personal” [edX/Harvard University], but would definitely not recommend it to others over a classroom experience. This class was not my first choice; the class I registered for initially was cancelled at the very last minute, and this was an inconvenience. It was difficult to then have no options or guidance for what else I should take.

In addition, I do not know if it was just the class I was taking, but the lectures and professors seemed very impersonal and rather dry and boring when speaking. This made it very difficult for me to pay attention to exactly what they were saying. As some of the speakers often became boring, I would instead just read the transcripts of their words — and probably miss-out on hearing their delivery. In a classroom setting, I would be forced to listen and get to the professors really well. Overall, I found myself much less engaged and passionate than during a traditional academic class. I was also not as motivated to do well, and not as motivated to take everything I could from the class — and I think it was because I felt so much more removed from the whole setting and learning environment. Even though some of the speakers did seem dry, others seemed immensely interesting, and I missed the ease of being able to go and visit professors during office hours to speak with and learn from them in person.

The biggest advantage I found, though, was the ease with which very interesting professionals could communicate information to a large group of students. In a real classroom setting, it is often difficult for [experts] to visit and give a classroom presentation. However, in the online setting, they could record their lectures at their convenience, and students could listen at their convenience as well. I truly do feel like I learned a great deal about Genomics from people that I would never have had the chance to interact with otherwise.

Viktor Mak ’15:

Having just finished my first online class, I wanted to share some of my observations. I took “Analyzing Global Trends for Business and Society” offered by The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania. Overall, I found the course to be thought provoking, well-delivered, and well worth my time. But it fell well short of the experience that a Colgate class provides.

I was surprised by how short the lectures were – 6 to 15 minutes each with 6 or 8 lectures per week. I had assumed they would be similar in length to lectures at Colgate. Sometimes the short format did not allow the professor to get into enough depth. As a result, the course covered much less material. The forums were also not that appealing to me. They were un-moderated, and oftentimes, discussions were not rewarding. I did enjoy that the class was synchronous, meaning lectures were released on a weekly basis and had to be watched during that week. This kept me on track to complete the course. The lectures could also be downloaded onto my phone, and I watched most of the class while traveling around on buses in Peru without wifi.

I would recommend this specific course, and online classes in general, to anyone who has free time and interests that they want to explore.

Ryan Hildebrandt ’17:

The format of the course, “The Brain and Space” [Coursera/Duke University], was a weekly series of video lectures that explained the concepts covered in the course and one quiz per week to check understanding of the content. There were 5-10 videos per week, 2-7 minutes long each, and the videos could be watched multiple times. The quizzes had a deadline one week after the release of the related video lectures, and there was a two week grace period after the deadline, during which there would be no penalty for taking the quiz late. Each quiz allowed two tries and would  take the higher score for your grade.

The positive aspects of this course were the regular release of course material and the ability to review the material as much or as little as desired. The course material was easier than I thought it would be, given my limited background in psychology, and it was largely concept based. This meant I was able to watch the videos once and take the quiz within an hour and a half every Monday morning. I was even able to keep up in Korea [while on the Benton Scholars trip] with no problem.

Because of my familiarity with the material, the course progressed slowly for my taste. New material came out once a week in an that could be easily covered in an hour; I would have preferred if the course went a bit faster, maybe two or three material releases per week. That being said, there was a Facebook group for the course, and it seemed that there were an equal number of people struggling with the material as there were comprehending it.

I’d definitely do another online course (and I am in August), although I’ll likely seek out a course with higher-level material or with a faster pace. But that might not be entirely practical with free courses.

Benton Summer Project: Reflections, Part II

By Peter Tschirhart on September 4, 2014

A small group of Benton Scholars took MOOCs during the summer of 2014. Participation was voluntary, and no Colgate course credit was granted. After finishing, we asked each student to write a response capturing their thoughts and reactions to this experience. Selected responses are reproduced below. Please note: the opinions expressed here are those of students–not the Benton Scholars program or Colgate University more generally.

Click here to find out more about the project behind these posts. Click here to learn more about the upcoming Online Education Symposium being sponsored by the Benton Scholars program.

Grace Western ’17:

This summer, I decided to endeavor on a project I never thought I would be active in: the online classroom. My stance on online education had already been formed due to my love of interactive classes full of discussion between professors and students. But I was given the chance to take a course this past summer, and so I thought, “it will only further my current beliefs, or dispel them to help me see the benefits of online education that I had been overlooking.”

I decided to take a course titled, “Tangible Things; Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens, and the Stuff Around You,” offered through HarvardEx, because I thought it encompassed a variety of subjects while on the main path of an art history course.

This course greatly disappointed me. It was laid out into 9 topics/sections, which were then further subdivided into compartments on how you would “learn” the material. I watched videos, read articles and documents, virtually explored Harvard’s museums, responded and discussed questions and problems, and then had a self reflection of my completion of the tasks. Though the professors attempted to make the material engaging and intellectually stimulating, most of the time spent for this course seemed mundane. The videos were long and drawn out, the readings, often incredibly lengthy and numerous, were about objects that I struggled to devote an hour or two to reading.

However, the questions posed to the students, which were reflective of our own lives and how they related to what we were learning, were definitely the highlight of the course. By attempting to come up with the best examples, descriptions, and explanations for the questions posed, a very thoughtful and thorough analysis of my life and my surroundings was required. Unfortunately, not all the topics/sections possessed these great questions, which were the redeeming factor for the course. Additionally, this area in particular is where I would have loved feedback from a professor; how to grow and expand an idea, look at it from another perspective, or just receive general feedback. The professors of the course did respond to some students answers on the discussion page, however those were only a couple students, out of the hundreds that took the course. Another downfall is that there was no ability to ask questions to the professors to help further understand the material. Yes, we could email them, but explaining to a student who does not understand something is not often easy, or successful, over the computer.

One of the reasons I am such an advocate for an in-class education is the ability to have someone more experienced and knowledgeable help explain and teach subjects, ideas, theories, and areas that are foreign to you. Furthermore, because of the personal interaction, professors have invested themselves in your education. This just cannot happen online, and this course has further solidified this notion for me.

Allison Zengilowski ‘17:

The process of participating in an online class was an interesting one. The structure of the course I took, “Presumed Innocent? The Social Science of Wrongful Conviction,” consisted of two lessons, including various readings and several interviews, followed by a quiz. I very quickly realized that if I could find a three to four hour time period to block out of my day, I could complete all of the work in one sitting, and typically do better on the quizzes than when I interacted with the material over multiple days.

Although I clearly understand these habits were not conducive for interacting with the material more, and hopefully thus retaining it more, it was easier. I also did not have anyone to speak with about the class, which was rather frustrating. There were online forums, but with thousands of people in the class, it would take far too long to comb through all of the posts. Personally, I prefer being able to interact and have discussions face-to-face. The online forum element was a good alternative, but personally, I did not feel inclined to participate, as most everyone would post things related to themselves rather than conversing back and forth.

What I did like about taking the online class was how the grade was not the main focus. Quizzes could be taken twice with the intent that if I did make a mistake, I could look at the exact question, comb through the text again, and find the correct response. This did make me learn more, especially things I, clearly, did not have a firm grasp on the first time around. Rather than merely placing an exam in one of my notebooks after receiving a decent grade, I was motivated to go back and physically correct my mistakes. In the online class setting, it was clear that learning was the goal. I appreciated the stress-free environment of learning for the sake of it. I wish this attitude could be transferred into a classroom setting here at Colgate.

First All-Benton Dinner of the Year

By mkeller on September 3, 2014

The Benton Scholars program kicked off the new school year last Thursday with an All-Benton Dinner at Alana Cultural Center. Members from all class years attended this event, along with members from the greater Colgate community, including Peter Tschirhart, Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Scholars Program; Professor Karen Harpp, Benton Scholars Faculty Director; Dean Kim Germain from the Office of Fellowships; Kara Bingham from the Office of Off-Campus Study; Thad Mantaro from the Shaw Wellness Institute; and Michael Sciola, Director of Career Services.

Attendees from the All-Benton Dinner

Attendees from the All-Benton Dinner

All-Benton Dinners are well attended, giving students a chance to meet the new class of Benton Scholars and reconnect with other students returning from semesters abroad.

Professor Karen Harpp discusses with students

Professor Karen Harpp discusses the upcoming year.

Members of all class years interact with one another

Members of all class years interact with one another

Dinner Time!

Dinner Time!

Dinner Discussions

Dinner Discussions


Benton Summer Project: Reflections, Part I

By Peter Tschirhart on September 2, 2014

A small group of Benton Scholars took MOOCs during the summer of 2014. Participation was voluntary, and no Colgate course credit was granted. After finishing, we asked each student to write a response capturing their thoughts and reactions to this experience. Selected responses are reproduced below. Please note: the opinions expressed here are those of students–not the Benton Scholars program or Colgate University more generally.

Click here to find out more about the project behind these posts. Click here to learn more about the upcoming Online Education Symposium being sponsored by the Benton Scholars program.

Ellen Rodowsky ’15:

I had never taken an online class prior to this summer, so I didn’t exactly know what to expect. I’m admittedly skeptical about the idea of an online platform replacing legitimate classrooms and real-time contact with professors and other students, but I can’t deny that I was extremely impressed by the variety of courses available for free online. After much debating, I enrolled in a course called “Representaciones Culturales de las Sexualidades”(Cultural Representations of the Sexualities) offered by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

The structure of the course seemed pretty straightforward: four weeks, four different topics presented via powerpoints and reading assignments, one short quiz on each topic, and an 800-word essay that would be graded by our fellow classmates. There were also forums available for students who wanted to expand upon topics that were touched on during the lectures. The lectures covered a lot of material very rapidly; at times it was almost overwhelming how quickly we moved through complex topics. The idea that “the body is a representation of the body, and can be interpreted as a text” was covered in 10 minutes — I can’t even imagine how long that point would be discussed in a Women’s Studies class at Colgate! The benefit to a video/powerpoint style of class, on the other hand, was that I could take as much time as I needed to make sure I understood a concept before continuing on with the lecture. I could pause and replay a portion if I didn’t grasp the full meaning the first time around, or I could stop and look up a concept on Google if I wasn’t satisfied with how it was presented by the professor.

Despite the benefits to a video-style lecture, my most adamant criticism of online classes (or at least, of this online class) was the lack of critical and in-depth discussion. The forums, although they aim to create a space for class-wide discussions, fall markedly short of achieving this. In classes, if a student asks a question, at the very least one student or the professor will respond. Additionally, if an argument or heated debate breaks out during class, I believe there are a lot of skills that students must use to respond respectfully in that moment. Online, these types of discussions do not happen; many questions had zero responses posted, and although none of the forums I read had very heavy debates, I think the anonymity that comes with posting online to strangers and the ability to simply stop answering does not foster the same kind of environment as a classroom.

I would have much preferred to study this topic in a classroom setting, but that’s not to say that I am opposed to all online education. I very much enjoy in-class discussions and talking about complex issues with my classmates, but for some classes I can see how it might be preferable to do them at one’s own pace. Introductory classes, for example, might be a better place for an online course. Lectures can be slowed down and repeated as many times as possible, so what would be a 150+ person, one-speed-fits-all class becomes more accessible to people who may need to hear things repeated multiple times. Some of my friends whose universities offer online courses say their schools try to better bridge the divide between online courses and full-time student life. Their online classes include one or two in-person meetings, where students can discuss material that has been covered in the class and ask questions of the professor that may be complicated to address through computers. It is undeniable that online education is gaining popularity (largely due to its cost versus costs of college tuition) and legitimacy, but I believe that for them to be truly successful they must learn how to fill the space left by removing the physical, real-time discussions.

Jungmin Kang ‘16:

For my summer project, I decided to take a German language class. However, when I arrived at the place I was to do my [summer] internship, I realized I did not have a stable internet connection. But I was able to find the youtube version of the lecture videos and download them at the office where I worked. It was an interesting observation – that online lectures do not necessitate a continual internet connection, but rather only enough to get the videos loaded onto a device. Of course, this means there may be limited or no interaction between the maker of the video and the student, or between students. For my German classes, though, I didn’t find this to be a problem, as the largest component of understanding the videos was just me sitting in front of the computer repeating the phrases and trying to get the pronunciation right.

Another thing I noticed was that, since I had all the videos downloaded and in one place, I could view any number of them at one time. There were days when I went through several, but then periods of many days when I didn’t see even one. For a language, I found this a little problematic, because on several occasions after these long pauses I had to go back to previous videos to review basics that I probably would have remembered had I not taken such breaks. However, the fact that this going-back-to-review process was possible and easy says something, I think. Also, it was nice that when I felt into it I could go as far as I liked. It was motivating and exciting to know that my educational intake was not being limited by an external force. Of course, in reality, there were limitations (my limited time, having only certain videos and therefore content to choose from, etc.), but there was an illusion of freedom that was nice. I’m not saying this is totally different from what is possible with a conventional medium such as a book (I can read as much of a textbook as I like), but knowing there was not someone who would be verifying that I had done a minimum amount of learning was liberating.

Benton Summer Project, 2014: Revisted

By Peter Tschirhart on September 1, 2014

Predictions are everywhere: online education, and MOOCs specifically, will reconfigure the 21st century university. For some analysts, change is positive, even liberating, because it promises to reduce costs while increasing access to higher education. For others, it is worthy of concern. While digital classrooms seem transformational, they might also consolidate the production of new knowledge, or commoditize face-to-face human interactions.

But many such conversations take for granted the insight and opinions of the very people most likely to encounter change: students themselves. To remedy this scotoma, the Benton Scholars identified a group of fourteen students who expressed interest in taking an online class during the summer of 2014. Participation was voluntary, no Colgate course credit was granted, all students had to register their interest in advance (and have their course proposal approved by a team of faculty and staff), and their time and insights were compensated modestly with a small stipend. After completing their course, students were asked to provide a brief written response as a way to reflect both on the delivery of content (as it compared to a more conventional class) and on the experience of taking classes online: What was it like? Did you feel a sense of community? Did you interact with faculty and learn from other students? Would you do it again?

From the outset, students articulated diverse reasons for participating. Some were curious about the course material, while others wanted to learn new technical skills, especially computer programming. Several even hoped to shore-up previously acquired knowledge or to prepare for an upcoming class at Colgate. In the end, however, our results stood apart from many MOOC statistics. A disproportionate number of our students, over 85%, ultimately completed their course — compared to a MOOC completion rate estimated at under 7%. (This number can perhaps be explained by the incentive structure built into our project and the high level of motivation among Benton Scholars generally.) Additionally, 93% of our participants were domestic students — contrasted with early data suggesting 74% of MOOC students register from abroad.

Over the next several days, we will begin to publish post-project reflections written by Benton Scholars. Indeed, as we prepare to host an Online Education Symposium during the fall of 2014, we hope these voices will serve as a provisional trace of the student experience while simultaneously grounding an informed discussion about MOOCs and the future of academe.