Light & Verity

No Mickey Mouse. No back row.

Yale offers online courses for credit.

Michael Sloan

Michael Sloan

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Don’t assume online learning means something less rigorous than a traditional course. That’s the first thing participants in Yale’s brand-new pilot program want to emphasize.

“It absolutely kicked my butt,” says Deirdre Hegarty, a 45-year-old industrial engineer who wanted to fill some gaps in her knowledge before returning to graduate school at Stanford as part of a career change. From her home office in California, in the summer of 2011, she took Introduction to Middle East Politics—one of two courses offered as part of a pilot, which continued this summer with nine courses. “I was applying to a very competitive program, and I didn’t want to be taking classes that would be viewed as Mickey Mouse. It needed to have a serious curriculum. This turned out to be take-no-prisoners.”

Economics professor Donald Brown, who taught his computational finance course twice last summer—once the old-fashioned way and once online—says he quickly got past the concern that the online version would be inferior. Soon he began to notice its unique advantages: archived lectures for students to review, a virtual whiteboard that let him call students “to the front of the room” more than he would have otherwise, and the ability of his teaching assistant to keep up with the schedule, despite a family crisis that called her out of town.

“Another advantage,” he says, “is there is no back row. There are no football players sitting in the back. Because I see everybody. I see them and they see me.”

That’s because Yale requires students to be present for video classroom sessions several hours a week, via software that makes all the students and the professor visible to one another. Most distance education, usually from for-profit colleges offering degree programs, relies on chat rooms with limited interaction, or students working on their own schedules entirely. (Other initiatives, including Open Yale Courses, are videos of classroom lectures, free to all but not for credit.) Yale’s courses are like traditional seminars moved online, capped at 20 tuition-paying students.

“Some of our peer institutions, if not most of them, are doing some version of this,” says Bill Whobrey, a Yale College associate dean in charge of the Yale Summer Session, which includes the online courses. “We have labeled this more or less as an experiment, at least for the first two years.” Caveat: “There’s no commitment that you’re going to be able to do a degree online at Yale. That’s not going to happen.”

Like Yale’s other summer courses, the online courses are priced at $3,150, and they are a moneymaker for the university—though they’re not likely to grow hugely. “Our model is not scalable in the way that some for-profit institutions are run,” Whobrey says.

The other motivation for the experiment, Whobrey says, is flexibility: “We’re looking at how we make this faculty available during the summer for students who aren’t able to be in New Haven during the summer. How do we make this experience available to non-Yale students who are qualified? And how can we put all that together in a way that meets the standards of a Yale education?”

But Donald Brown found that students are attracted to the online option regardless of how remote they are. Coincidentally, all five of his students were living in New Haven.

“When I found this out,” he says, “I said, ‘I’m sure we can find a classroom to meet in’—and they unanimously said no. They were perfectly comfortable in the format we had. There’s a real generational difference in the comfort level. I told my wife it took me five weeks to adapt, and it took them five minutes.”


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