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Emily Weaver ’20 & Caio Brighenti ’20: Research in the Galapagos

By Lizzy Moore on February 25, 2018

Caio and Emily on their trip to the Galapagos as a part of their summer research project

This interview was conducted with Emily Weaver and Caio Brighenti, two sophomores in the Benton Scholar program. Emily is intending to major in Environmental Geology and Caio is double majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies and Computer Science. This past summer, they travelled to the Galapagos and designed an educational virtual reality application using the footage they captured on their trip.


Could you tell me about the project you two worked on this summer?

C: This summer, we designed and started implementing an educational experience in the form of a virtual reality application, targeted towards children, but meant for anyone who’d like to learn about the Galapagos-
E: -or really just learn about science in general, but through the Galapagos. Because we believe the Galapagos are super exciting- it’s a melting pot of science. You can show them iguanas and how they survive volcanic eruptions and teach them about science.

The iguanas survive volcanoes?

C: Every island in the Galapagos is a volcano, that’s how they were formed. But, the iguanas have been around for longer than the volcanoes because the volcanoes kind of drift, get eroded, and “sink,” so the iguanas migrate to different islands. So, all of the iguana species are older than all of the current islands, which is really cool. Its through examples like this that someone can learn about science.


So, Emily, what did you have to do this summer in order to develop this project?

E: I had to learn all about the Galapagos. I had to learn about the geology, the biology, and how it is all interconnected. And then I had to write storylines for these kids to learn about- pathways that they can travel through and make it an adventure. Then, I gave that to Caio, who does his magic with a computer.

Alright, Caio, so what’s your magic?

C: I’m the computer man. So I worked on the programming, video rendering, video stitching- I took the beautiful ideas that Emily developed and the beautiful scripts that she wrote and turned them into a beautiful reality- a virtual reality. I worked in the Unity 3D Engine and I used the Google VR SDK to develop a pilot program of the virtual reality application. When you open the application, you start out with a map in front of you of all the locations you can go. The map is in a scene thats actually a shot we took with 360 cameras in the Galapagos. Obviously, we’ve been stitched out of the shots. Here, you can see some of the famous iguanas. So, let’s say you want to learn about the volcanoes, you can look at Sierra Negra, which is the biggest volcano on Isabela Island. You click on it, and boom, it takes you to it. This is what we accomplished by the and of the summer, and this is what we presented at the NASC fellowship colloquium. We did research under the Natural Sciences and Mathematics division, so at the beginning of the semester, we presented our findings from the summer. We got to show this off, along with a technical presentation about some of our design choices and those kinds of details.
E: And now there’s a guidebook for all the summer research positions where we wrote a summary about what we did, we’re on page 128. (Undergraduate Summer Research Directory)

What made you want to do this project?

C: I work in the Vis Lab, and I’ve worked in the Vis Lab since the beginning of the fall semester of 2016. And this project was done along with the Vis Lab director, Joe Eakin, who is my boss. What we do in the Vis Lab is produce things for the dome- I specifically produce virtual reality content for the Vis Lab. So naturally, when Karen Harpp had this idea and talked to Joe about it, it made sense to include me as the one who actually is doing VR stuff. So I guess it was a coincidence that I’m a Benton and Karen is the director of the Benton program, but it just worked out really nicely in that case.
E: I was just talking to Karen one day about what I was going to be doing over the summer, and I wasn’t really sure what I’d be doing. And she was like, “Hey, there’s this project that we’re working on. Do you like kids?” and I was like, “Yeah sure,” so she was like, “So, we’re working on this project- let me send you a bunch of information about it. Read through it, think about it, and tell me if you’d be interested. We’d love to have you.” Then, I read it, and I thought it was really cool.

How long were you in the Galapagos? How did you like visiting a new country?

C: We were in the Galapagos for ten days including travel time. We spent the rest of the summer living at Colgate and working on the project here.
E: I thought going to the Galapagos was really interesting- I’d never been to a Spanish-speaking country.


How did your trip to the Galapagos compare to your trip to Europe with the rest of the Bentons at the beginning of the summer?

E: It’s a very hard comparison. Europe was an academic trip and this was a work trip and they’re very different places.
C: Obviously, the trip to the Galapagos was awesome. But, when you tell people, “Oh, i went to the Galapagos,” they imagine you being on the beach, enjoying the animals, and having a good time all day. But, we were working probably twelve hours a day, if not more. We were waking up at six, filming all day, coming back and cataloguing our footage, and going to bed at 2:00 a.m. It was hard work. We were using two sets of 360 cameras that are six cameras each and they have a huge mount, a huge pole, and a huge weight on the bottom. To get to the volcano, we walked ten miles or something absurd like that, and I would be hauling that thing on my back the whole time. So, I loved going and it was an awesome time, but wasn’t just a fun trip- it was a lot of work all day, every day.
E: And it was rewarding work, so that made it worth it.

So you’re still working on this project this year? Are you making a lot of progress?

C: Yes, we’ve continued to work on it. We had a meeting a few hours ago and another one Tuesday morning. We’ve shifted our focus a little bit to try and speed up progress because we realized progress hasn’t been as good as we’d like it to be during the semester. I’m pretty optimistic that it’ll pick up. The shift is lowering the VR element of it. We’re going to keep the elements of VR that we like and take away the ones we don’t like.
E: So, you’ll still be able to immerse yourself in these different landscapes, but it won’t be 100% of the time. So some of the time, you’ll be doing work on a computer or on your phone screen, and then it’ll prompt you to put on your VR headset and take a look around in the space. So it’ll still incorporate the innovativeness of VR, but it’ll be more manageable.

“XYZ with Q” 3: Dance with Allison Zengilowski ’17

By Quanzhi Guo on October 26, 2015

In the blog series XYZ with Q, Quanzhi “Q” Guo ’18 visits current and former Benton Scholars to learn about their interests, passions, and accomplishments. In the third instalment of the series, Q visits Allison Zengilowski ’17, a Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies major for a dance rehearsal. Allison shares her passion for dance and talks about her involvement with online education.

To me, dancers have always been creatures of another world. I remember gaping at girls in pink fluffy dresses, envying the way the could do pirouettes so effortlessly and elegantly. So it was with excitement, and hesitation, that I joined Benton Scholar Allison Zengilowski ’17, President of the Colgate Dance Initiative (CDI), during a rehearsal with FUSE (which stands for Fierce, Unusual, Sexy, and Eclectic) Dance Company.

Right now, Allison is co-choreographing a piece for one of Colgate’s most popular events of the year: Dancefest. Despite her ambitious and busy schedule, this extra work nonetheless helps Allison cope with the challenges of student life. “Sometimes I have a hard time expressing what I am feeling or knowing what I need to do to cope with the stress that I sometimes fall victim to. It is incredibly therapeutic to get into the studio after a long day and to focus on creating something with a group of brilliant people,” Allison said.

Before coming to Colgate, Allison actually had 13 years of ballet experience. “In ballet, you are constantly comparing yourself to others, so it is easy to get caught up in the mentality of ‘Why don’t I look like her? Would I get more corrections, better parts if I was skinnier?’ ” While Allison admits that the ballet world is harsh towards dancers’ bodies, and has personally struggled with body issues, she has learnt to focus more on perfecting steps and performance quality thanks to her mom, who pursued a formal ballet program in college. As a result, Allison values her body more as an instrument and a means to communicate.

Allison’s passion for and commitment to dance carries into other parts of her life, too. After taking an online course as part of the Benton Scholars’ 2014 summer project, and later being involved in a symposium about online education, she and four other ’17 Bentons helped Professor Karen Harpp redesign and administer her course, Advent of the Atomic Bomb, offered as a seminar for the Benton Scholars program. Dubbed the “Bomb Squad” (they even have a team t-shirt!), they introduced changes to enhance the interaction and level of engagement between students and alumni. “We cleaned up the edX Edge platform to make it a bit more user friendly, we shortened the video lectures, added comprehension questions, implemented a video presentation (Fireside Chats), created small discussion groups, and incorporated a WordPress blog.”

After the course ended, Allison and Benton Scholar Sid Wadhera ’17 worked with Prof. Harpp to analyze and evaluate those changes. “Students reported a much higher confidence with their understanding of the ethical content surrounding the bomb than the alumni did. I believe this is telling of how ethical content is much more difficult to communicate and to learn through an online platform and without peers with whom to discuss the issues,” she said. Over fall break, she and Sid presented their findings at Learning with MOOCs II, an international conference held at Teachers College, Columbia University. They were the only undergraduate presenters. “It was interesting to see large research institutions patting themselves on the back for trying to model small liberal arts colleges like Colgate,” she mused.

Right now, the “Bomb Squad” is serving as TAs for the first-year seminar, Emerging Global Challenges, where the incoming Benton class is grappling with the future of education and technology by producing their own two-week MOOC, called BreadX. Using bread as a lens, this course will encourage middle school (and older!) students to ask important questions—about poverty, global food supplies, industrial farming, water supplies, gender roles, and global warming.

“Overall, I have been challenged, frustrated, but also rewarded by tackling online education. Being at the forefront of an emerging field…I hope to continue pushing the boundaries of online education while also learning more about how people are interacting with the medium to make it the most effective means … to learn new information,” Allison said. “I initially believed online education to be a fad that had very little merit. However, while working directly on a class, I’ve come to realize that online education can serve as a worthwhile means through which to acquire knowledge. I do not believe we will ever be able to truly replicate a Colgate classroom, but I hope to imbue a bit of Colgate into online education.”

Stretching, kneeling, and attempting the grand jeté will not transform me into a lithe dancer in time for Dance Fest. But will I see you in BreadX?

Student Profile: Jacq Zier ’15

By Jessica Li on December 4, 2014

FullSizeRender-2 copy

Name: Jacq Zier
Class year: 2015
Hometown: Eastsound, Washington
Major: Molecular Biology/Premed

Benton senior Jacq Zier has spent her Colgate career fostering a love for biology. Jacq spent the last two summers interning in her home state of Washington at the SeaDoc Society and the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

The SeaDoc Society does research focused on measuring and maintaining the health of the Salish Sea, a body of water that stretches from Seattle up through Vancouver. It is a large ecosystem which contains a variety of species. “Seattle and Vancouver are large urban centers that have unloaded a lot of pollution into the water,” Jacq explained. “In addition to that, the area has had a history of overfishing, especially salmon. In essence, the Salish Sea is a really vibrant marine environment, however it has a lot of stresses on it.”

During her first summer at the SeaDoc Society Jacq wrote a species profile of harbor seals. Her article was published in the encyclopedia of Puget Sound, a big project in the region. Additionally, Jacq has made significant contributions to the list of species of concern in the Salish Sea by compiling the four existing lists into one. “A list that accurately describes the status of species diversity is a better metric for looking at the health of the ecosystem, because it is complete, and shows that more and more species are becoming threatened every year”. Jacq presented her findings at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference, and won first place for undergraduate presentations.

In addition to her contributions at the SeaDoc Society, Jacq had the opportunity to work as an Assistant Coordinator at the San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network. “Harbor seals are the most abundant marine mammal in the Salish Sea,” Jacq explained. “Their population is at carrying capacity, which means that their populations are limited by food and space. This is a healthy sign for their population, however this also means that many of the seals will die. The population has an approximately 90% mortality rate.”

Mature harbor seals will reproduce once a year. Because all of the seals mate at the same time, they all give birth at the same time. This results in an annual pupping season, when the seals all have their babies within one month, usually July. During pupping season, the Salish Sea is filled with newborn harbor seals. Unfortunately, during this season, the young pups can also lose their mothers and get stranded on beaches.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act however forbids anyone to touch or help any protected marine mammals. “That’s where the marine mammal stranding network comes in. Anyone can call if they have a sighting of a stranded marine animal.” Jacq’s job was to respond to those calls, examine the baby seals, tag them, and monitor them after the physical.

Jacq’s experience on the team left her with a better understanding of the cross section between science and the community. She described: “Working at the Marine Mammal Stranding Network was a really wonderful experience because we were able to translate science to the community, and include people who aren’t normally involved in science. It was fun to share what I know about the biology of harbor seals with others, and to apply my knowledge to a worthwhile cause. People in the community get very attached to harbor seals, so it was fun to not only help the seals, but also talk to so many people who were touched by the seals, and help them understand the ecology and the biology of the animals that they cared so much about.”

By Jessica Spero Li ‘15




Benton Summer Project: Reflections, Part IV

By Peter Tschirhart on October 15, 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 Online Education Symposium being sponsored by the Benton Scholars program.

Ishir Dutta ’17 (excerpts):

I have taken MIT’s “Introduction to Electricity and Magnetism” (EM), the Linux Foundation’s “Introduction to Linux” (Linux), and am currently in the middle of Harvard’s “Introduction to Computer Science” (CS50). I’ve also dabbled in solar energy, mechanics (both a student’s course and a teacher’s course), circuits and electronics, justice, linear algebra and oscillatory systems to varying degrees of intensity. Here, I’ll talk about the first three courses while also drawing on my limited experience with the others in the back of my mind.

Some Fundamental Issues

If we are to seriously consider testing an online platform, we need to take a closer look at its offline equivalent. Take the college transcript for instance. Yes, there are the classes you took and the grades you got with your name printed on it, but there is a great deal that a college transcript (or diploma, for that matter) conveys that isn’t printed anywhere. General classroom policies, grading policies, examinations, academic honesty – these are all aspects of a formal college education that we don’t ever really need to spell out because, besides the professors conducting weird classroom experiments or being particularly lenient, they’re fairly consistent all over the world.

One way to be intentional and mindful of all this information would be to offer different “tracks” – open or guided course material, closed or open book exams (harder to actually monitor, but in principle), languages to be made available – and essentially make the experience customizable so that we can reflect more accurately the KIND of course that’s been completed. I realize that this may require more work on the back end, but I don’t see it being a monumental task (may be completely wrong here. I don’t write the code for online courses, I just take them).

I’ve noticed (from a distance) that the use of fora to discuss course material is a massive plus for online course work. The CS50 group on Facebook has over 40,000 members, there are similar groups on reddit and twitter as well. This allows for almost instant feedback and help from community members. While I didn’t use these for my own questions, they had a massive impact on the way I viewed my own skills (or lack of them) within a larger classroom. I felt motivated to push through problem sets that I would have probably given up on because I kept bumping into a stupid mistake that refused to reveal itself to me. The occasional appearance of the instructors on these fora in CS as well as EM (Prof. Lewin, who taught EM, made it a point to answer every question directed at him – fantastic to be a part of) made the courses so much more engaging. These were people that actually existed beyond the recorded lectures and classrooms far, far away. The production of weekly/biweekly exclusive content for both these courses had a similar motivational effect.

Limitations (work in progress)

The biggest roadblock I kept hitting was that of bandwidth. Internet access is expensive, and taking a 4 month course meant trawling through tens of gigabytes of course material, sometimes repeatedly. Given that the ultimate goal (as I see it) of the online course is to provide a world class education to those who do not have access to it for any reason, this is a pretty major issue.

Laine Barrand ’17:

The online course I chose to take was “Competitive Strategy” offered by Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität-München via Coursera. The course was organized into 6 modules that were about an hour long each. The modules were comprised of video-lectures, and the professor alternated between speaking directly into the camera and using a graphic interface to illustrate various concepts directly on the screen. The modules consisted of sub-videos that were each around 10-15 minutes long. Between every other sub-video there was a quiz, consisting of 3-4 questions, to check comprehension. After each module, there was a larger quiz of 10 questions; and at the conclusion of the course, there was a cumulative final exam of 25 questions.

What I really liked about this course was its flexibility. Unlike other online courses I’ve taken, this one was entirely self-timed. This is a major advantage online education has over classroom learning, because it enables people who may not consistently have extra time to still take the course when it’s convenient. While I chose to watch the modules over the span of a couple of weeks, someone else could have chosen to complete the entire course in an afternoon.

However, while the information I learned is useful and has been applicable to my coursework at Colgate, I believe online education should be used to complement classroom learning and not to replace it. In one of the other courses I took this summer, the format included an open forum where students could “interact” with others by posting thoughts and questions and having other students respond. This cannot replace the spontaneous discussions that happen in a physical classroom, and I would argue that we learn more from in-class discussions than we do from posting in a forum. However, I think online education has a lot of potential as a complement to classroom learning.

Taylor Mooney ’17:

Since I knew very little about online education to begin with, I felt it would be appropriate for me to take a class called “Emerging Trends & Technologies in the Virtual K-12 Classroom” from UC Irvine. In this course, Professor Melissa Loble discussed the various facets of online instruction, including what options are available and how to implement them. This course was taught in 5 modules, with a quiz at the end of each module, and one peer-reviewed assignment. It was asynchronous, but there were synchronous activities (like Twitter chats and forum discussions) that were optional, but highly encouraged.

The biggest concern I had stemmed from peer-reviewed assignments. This course was a MOOC, so there were hundreds of students taking it, and obviously our professor couldn’t grade individual assignments, so the peer review assignment was instituted. The opportunities to practice effective peer reviewing are obviously very important; but out of three people who critiqued my paper, I felt only one gave me thought-out feedback. I assume that the people taking the course knew just as much as I did about using technologies in the classroom–so how effective can peer review be?

I tried to figure out a way to make this aspect of MOOCs more effective. However, I found that the issue is not so much the assignment–it’s how big the class is. Colgate can use MOOCs more for advertising or branding purposes, since it can reach out to a huge population at once, but I don’t feel they are the right route to take if we’re looking for intellectual growth. I would certainly prefer a more intimate online classroom of around 10-15 people, where I could get more one-on-one attention from a professor and also create more of a community with other students. This kind of online class would be more conducive to my learning style. Not only this, but it is also easier for the professor to manage, allowing more time to focus on the actual material and not the technical issues that arise from having thousands of students to take care of at once.

Sharon Nicol ’17:

When I first started my MOOC venture, I was taking a course called “Programming for Everybody” from the University of Michigan. Technical difficulties kept me from completing the programming course, and ultimately this was a blessing, because the issues I found with the course that I completed would have been magnified in a subject area in which I have difficulty, such as computer science.

I completed a course called “The Camera Never Lies,” provided by Royal Holloway, University of London, through Coursera. The course was the perfect synthesis of courses I had taken in the spring [at Colgate], including “Intro to Film and Media Studies,” “Challenges of Modernity,” and “Intro to Peace and Conflict Studies,” because it focused on the role of images as historical evidence and brought up issues of authenticity, manipulation, and how images are used in the development of popular opinion. My motivations for pursuing a course within the social sciences was to gain an understanding of the role massive open courses can play in the unique needs of social scientists; the necessity for human engagement, interaction, and observation.

As a student who chose to attend Colgate because faculty make themselves available outside of class, I found it difficult to have no contact with my MOOC professor. I suppose I could have easily gone to the Royal Holloway website and found his contact information; however, the fact that it was not advertised made it seem as though this was not encouraged. Ultimately, the course felt as though there was no human in charge of it. If I had a difficulty, whether technological or intellectual, there was no point person. My only option was the forums. Although this is one of the few online courses I have experienced, it gave me the impression that MOOCs lack structure, which may be ok when all is running smoothly, but becomes troubling when problems arise.

In search of guidance, I entered the forums. The major problem with the forums is best described as the relation between quantity and quality. There are thousands of people taking MOOCs; and because these people have opinions, problems, or are looking for guidance, there are a lot of forum threads. These threads are of varying topics and relevancies, and the problem became how to sort through the hundreds of forum posts to find helpful information.

Another issue I had with the forums was that they stifled free-flowing thought. I believe that many statements of intellectual wealth come out of stream of consciousness and being able to share free thoughts with other people. However, within the forums, because the responses are typed, there is a barrier to some aspects of thought. Because of this, a dichotomy arose. On one hand, there were people who chose to say things with no intellectual basis and made the forums inappropriate rants; on the other hand, there were people who had highly thought-out positions, but who made themselves incomprehensible and seemed closed to differing opinions. There was little middle ground.

Ultimately, my experience with MOOCs does not say that they are impossible to learn from, simply that they are not well suited to all learning styles. A person who can comprehend material with little need for outside aid would be very successful with MOOCs. And as a social scientist who values structure and the intellect of my peers, MOOCs, in their current incarnation, do not fulfill my needs.

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.

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.

Learning Online: A Benton Scholars Summer Project

By Peter Tschirhart on April 23, 2014

With Colgate’s Innovation + Disruption symposium just around the corner, the Benton Scholars have launched a summer project that will take students to the very heart of digital learning.

Their project will have multiple phases. During the first, students will sign-up to take a non-credit online course during the summer on a subject of their choice. The course can be offered through any provider–including edX, coursera, and Khan Academy–but must include both content delivery and assessment mechanisms. So far, students have expressed interest in subject material ranging from Global Health and Humanitarianism (offered by the University of Manchester through coursera) to Introduction to Computer Science (offered by HarvardX through edX).

Phase two will draw these first-hand experiences into dialogue with a lively campus conversation about Colgate and the future of “classroom” learning. While enthusiasm for online education is not lacking for press coverage, seldom are student voices actively incorporated, and rarely are shifts in social power dynamics considered. Consequently, throughout the fall semester, the Benton Scholars will bring a small group of digital educators, as well as champions and critics of online education, to campus for a series of intimate lectures and discussions. A full schedule of events and guests will be announced later in the summer.

Keep following the Benton Scholars blog for more information.