The digital evolution of teaching at Yale

The revolution already happened. Now what’s the best way to use it?

David Zax ’06, a contributing writer for Fast Company and MIT Technology Review, focuses on technology and business.

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I was an undergraduate at Yale during simpler technological times. The iPhone didn’t exist; indeed, a few classmates arrived on campus in the fall of 2002 insisting they didn’t need cell phones at all. Laptops were growing ubiquitous, but it was rare for students to take notes on them. Course readings were distributed, physically, from printing service centers like Tyco on Elm.

Something felt different my senior year, though. That’s when wireless Internet came to my dorm in Silliman. It felt like magic. As I prepared to graduate in May of 2006, Sterling Memorial Library was divesting itself of its physical card catalogue system.

The years after my graduation brought sweeping change. In 2008, I got addicted to a newfangled thing called an iPhone. By 2010, formerly disdainful of the Internet, I was writing almost exclusively for it; huge demand for technology journalism had shunted me into that beat. Occasionally, I glimpsed that higher education was not immune to the digital fever, like when the professor who had taught me Paradise Lost suggested I write about the Shakespeare iPad app he’d developed in his new perch at Notre Dame.

This past October, after almost a decade in which I had barely set foot on campus, I returned to Yale with an assignment from this magazine: to get a sense of how Yale was adapting to the digital revolution that has rewritten the rules of how all of us communicate, do business, and learn. When Yale president Peter Salovey ’86PhD delivered his inaugural address in the fall of 2013, he said new technologies had created “a teaching and learning revolution.” I wanted to know: was Yale joining that revolution?

Before arriving in New Haven, I’d asked an administrator to list a few professors who were taking the lead in digital innovation at Yale. A number, I noticed, were at Yale’s School of Management, so I decided to make it one of the first stops on my itinerary.

The SOM I had known a decade ago was a squat gray building tucked away on Science Hill. No longer: the new SOM, I discovered, had relocated to a massive, gleaming, Norman Foster–designed building across the street from the Peabody Museum. Built for $243 million, Edward P. Evans Hall opened in January of 2014.

I found Kyle Jensen, SOM’s director of entrepreneurship, in a basement space that resembled many startup offices I had visited over the years. Jensen (Twitter handle: @DataKyle), a thirtysomething in a fitted blazer, looked like the typical startup founder—and indeed, he had founded three. Later that day, his class would play host to a “user experience” designer at Google.

Jensen gave me a brief tour of the way technology made his class quite different from the sort I might have been able to audit at SOM in 2005. As with many Yale classes now, much of the class business was conducted through the web. Students would often access reading or a video lecture on the class’s website, and be asked to complete quizzes online. When guest speakers came, students could submit questions via a mobile device, with the best questions voted up; technology could thereby serve as a “liberator of introverted persons,” said Jensen.

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What surprised me most about my visit to SOM was the central role of video. Jensen led me down to SOM’s Media Control Center, a small room staffed by a handful of specialists monitoring dozens of screens. On one wall, a massive television displayed live feeds of every active classroom in the building. Jensen explained: should any professor encounter a technological problem mid-lecture, he or she could wave at the camera, and a specialist could begin to resolve the problem. These media gurus also were constantly beaming guest speakers onto giant screens in each classroom, where they could lecture from anywhere in the world.

“It’s almost like a small network television station,” said Donny Bristol, one of the media specialists. Many professors have the media center record all their lectures. Students who missed class can then review the lectures later, as can the professors, who may want to study their own performance.

All of this was undeniably shiny, efficient, and cool. But was it fundamentally contributing to a Yale education, I wondered? Even though I own about a dozen Apple products, I have an inner Luddite. On days when the world feels like a buzzing, blurring confusion of scrolling ones and zeroes, when I catch myself feeling like I’ve somehow “fallen behind” on Instagram, the inner Luddite erupts, and I suddenly have nostalgia for the quiet hours I spent in Sterling Memorial Library reading a musty book pulled from the shelf. Wasn’t Yale’s job to resist the current digital frenzy, to preserve certain traditions of learning? I put the question to Jensen.

Jensen agreed—halfway. “I have the same nostalgia for those endless hours I spent with just books and paper and quiet,” he said. “But I’m not willing to say that such an emotional state cannot be achieved merely due to the presence of technology.” The book, too, was once an innovative technology replacing the scroll, and most Luddite arguments like mine, Jensen said, tended to be “on the wrong side of history.” He had studied engineering when calculators were ubiquitous, and back then, “you would have found gray-haired engineers on the faculty who said, ‘You cannot truly appreciate engineering with this small computer that crunches numbers for you, without doing it by hand with a slide rule.’ Probably before then, there were people who said the slide rule would be ruinous toward one’s mental faculties.”

I nodded and made a mental note to Google “slide rule,” to find out just what this technology was that had once threatened to destroy the profession of engineering.

All right, I thought, walking down College Street for my next meeting. Maybe newfangled innovation suits SOM, where hip professor-entrepreneurs play host to guest speakers from Google. But were new digital tools finding their place in the Yale I had known as an undergraduate, a Yale of humanities courses taught by those gray-haired traditionalists who didn’t even use slide rules? I doubted it, as I wandered toward Stoeckel Hall. My next meeting was with a professor named Craig Wright, whom I’d been told was one of the people at the forefront of digital innovation at Yale. I was expecting an encounter with another young evangelist like Jensen.

As I approached Room 302, Craig Wright’s office, I heard someone playing classical music on a piano behind the closed door. I double-checked my e-mail, certain I had mixed something up. But I was in the right place. I knocked.

Craig Wright did not fit my stereotype of the sort of professor who would be interested in digital innovation. A tenured professor of music, he had been teaching at Yale for longer than Jensen had been alive. I didn’t ask his age, but did learn over the course of our conversation that he had five grandchildren. His hair was gray.

Yes, he specialized in teaching the work of musicians centuries dead, and had been playing Mozart when I knocked on his door. But Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators was on his bookshelf, and Wright loved the possibilities that new technologies opened, like showing students an animation of the sound waves created by the opening trills in “Ride of the Valkyries.” He had become especially interested, too, in how the Internet could enable Yale’s professors to share their knowledge beyond the Yale community and with the entire world.

“I just intuited about five to seven years ago that this was going to be hugely important in education, that technology could revolutionize the way I teach,” Wright told me. In 2012, he served as cochair of a committee surveying Yale’s options in the realm of online education. The following year, he was appointed Yale’s first academic director of online education.

I would soon learn that Wright was hardly the only revered professor who had become one of the faces of the new digital Yale. Other leaders in online education at Yale include Diana Kleiner of the art history department, Paul Bloom of the psychology department, and Robert Shiller in economics, each of them tenured, even “star,” professors. (Shiller, a Nobel laureate, had Yale announce in its press release about the prize that he would have a free online education course available the following month.) In Silicon Valley, the biggest risks are usually taken by the young. But at Yale, I would soon learn, it was the older, more established teachers who were often at the vanguard of digital innovation.

And as I delved into the history of online education at Yale, I learned it had been this way for almost 15 years.

Yale views its educational mission as threefold: the creation, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge. Professors’ research creates knowledge, and the libraries preserve it. But where technology is most profoundly affecting the Yale educational mission at the moment may be in that third category: dissemination.

In 2001, Yale joined forces with Stanford and Oxford to create something called the Alliance for Lifelong Learning (AllLearn, for short). Spearheaded by Kleiner, AllLearn developed high-quality not-for-credit courses and charged alumni and others around $600 to take them online. There was not sufficient interest at that price, and AllLearn closed in 2006. But it was the Yale faculty’s first venture into new online territory: sharing their teaching far beyond their classrooms in New Haven.

In 2007, Yale created Open Yale Courses, making complete courses taught by tenured Yale professors available for free to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. The courses, eventually 42 in all, were not for credit, but each offered a semester’s worth of filmed lectures by a leading Yale teacher and a complete syllabus. They were MOOCs—massive online open courses—before the term was invented, though without the grading systems or discussion forums that MOOCs feature today. (The courses are still available at oyc.yale.edu.) Being free of charge to everyone, Open Yale Courses saw greater popularity than AllLearn, partly through subtitles that enabled a global reach; Mandarin subtitles on one course made the philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, said a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, one of “the most recognizable professors in China.”

In 2011, Yale College began experimenting with offering online courses for credit to students in summer session. Yale summer classes had long been open to qualified students from any college. But videoconferencing technology can put the faces of a classful of students, live, on a professor’s screen for a class discussion—allowing those students to “come to class” from afar, without uprooting themselves for a summer. Key to Yale’s comfort in trying this were two requirements: that classes stay small and that they remain high-quality. That summer, Yale piloted two courses using a technology platform that allowed up to 20 simultaneous live video feeds. Both courses were reported, by teachers and students alike, to be as demanding and rewarding as the traditional versions. (Economics professor Donald Brown, who taught a computational finance course online in summer 2012, discovered some advantages, he told the Yale Alumni Magazine. Not only could he call students to the “front of the class” more easily and more often, but also, with videoconferencing “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 2011 success allowed the program to expand, and by 2013, the number of courses had grown to 14. In that year, 144 students from all over the world enrolled in Yale Summer Online courses. And while most of those were Yale students, 5 percent were not: for the first time in history, students had earned Yale College credit without ever having set foot in New Haven. Moreover, faculty were able to teach their courses from anywhere—China, Liberia, Germany—where they were conducting summer research.

In any entirely new venture, where there are no set practices and tradition has to be made up as one goes along, it helps to have standards and goals. Yale decided on two in particular. Foremost: all Yale online educational programs must hew to the same level of quality as the traditional Yale education. There is to be no watering down. The point is “excellence,” says Linda Lorimer ’77JD, senior counselor to President Salovey, who created Yale’s Office of Online Dissemination in 2005 and oversees Yale’s online educational activities. Hence the focus on small, demanding courses taught by leading scholars, rather than massive enrollments.

And also, the online efforts have to add value. Digital education must enhance the “dissemination” element of Yale’s mission—either by adding to the quality and content of the teaching or by spreading it more widely. As Lorimer puts it, “How do we use technology to improve the learning experience for our students at Yale?  And how do we amplify the impact of Yale’s amazing faculty to instruct many more students around the world who will never have the chance to study in New Haven?”

Improving the Yale learning experience is a work continually in progress, as new ideas emerge. Yale’s Center for Language Study has joined forces with Cornell and Columbia, sharing faculty and pooling students across the institution to make economical the teaching of less-in-demand languages (Zulu, Romanian, Dutch). The School of Management, likewise, has united 28 business schools from 25 countries in what it calls the Global Network for Advanced Management, meaning students in New Haven may have classmates in India, Brazil, Ghana, or Indonesia. Indeed, SOM views virtual collaboration as so essential to the future of business that by the time you read this, a core course featuring international virtual collaboration will be a required part of the core curriculum. “This is something recruiters demand,” says Camino de Paz, SOM’s director of global initiatives. “Nobody’s going to just work with people they have next door.”

These examples show off what Salovey calls the “virtuous circle” of digital education: “There is no longer a strict demarcation between online learning activities on and off campus, since projects initially targeted for an audience beyond the campus migrate back to serve Yale students, and vice versa.”

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As for dissemination of Yale’s knowledge, it has grown far beyond those first two Yale College summer courses. At least three of the professional schools at Yale have explored online learning in a significant way. Many of Yale’s professional schools have long offered brief continuing education programs, at the end of which passing students earn a certificate. In 2011, the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies offered its first entirely online certificate program, on the topic of tropical forest conservation; managers from eight Latin American countries participated, and the program has since grown. Also in 2011, the Yale School of Nursing created an entire degree program, aimed at midcareer professionals, which mixes online learning with some on-campus education. The School of Medicine is developing a similarly “blended” program to train physician’s assistants.

Yale’s gradual embrace of online education hasn’t occurred in a vacuum, of course; it has mirrored a much broader experiment being conducted by higher education and various businesses. In the last few years, MOOCs have become the online education innovation of the moment. By early 2013, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was writing rhapsodically, in an op-ed titled “Revolution Hits the Universities,” that “nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course.” Leading providers of MOOCs include Coursera and Udacity, for-profit companies founded by Stanford professors, and edX, a nonprofit created jointly by Harvard and MIT. Yale is one of nearly 140 institutions that use the Coursera platform to mount their free MOOCs—in Yale’s case, ten so far. (Coursera hired former Yale president Richard Levin ’74PhD as CEO in 2014; see page 46.)

How does Yale rank among its peers in education technology? To those who monitor the field closely, Yale is moving at an appropriate pace. “I don’t think Harvard and Stanford are ahead” in disseminating knowledge via online courses, Ryan Craig ’94, ’99JD, told me. Craig, the managing director at University Ventures, a private equity firm focused on higher education, consults on an advisory board for Yale. But he does believe that Yale has underinvested in its computer science department. Yale recently announced a move to bring the number of computer science faculty slots from 19 to 26, but that still leaves it far behind, say, Harvard, which is planning to increase to 36; or Stanford, at 55. “Coding is the language of the future,” said Craig. “Everyone should be conversant in it.” 

Not everyone is excited about all this apparent progress. Take the case of the proposed physician’s assistant (PA) degree the School of Medicine is developing, for example.

In March of 2015, the school announced that after six months of “thorough study,” it had approved “a new pathway for earning a Yale PA degree” that would blend online coursework and on-site clinical experience. It touted the program as helping to meet a large demand for PAs across the country. Yale currently only admits 36 PA students each year; up to 350 could be admitted with the online degree.

But the school faced a backlash—from its own students and alumni. By the end of the month, the Yale Daily News was reporting that most current and recently graduated PAs from the school opposed the creation of an online degree. The students issued a statement expressing concern that “an online program, even when implemented in the best way possible, may not be able to meet the same quality as on-site education.” Several graduates of the traditional PA program expressed a fear that the new online version would “devalue” their degree.

In the end, the national accreditation group for PA programs rejected Yale’s proposal to change class size, since it had been less than the required five years since the last change. The medical school is working toward accreditation in 2018 and has set up a system for gathering alumni and student input to shape the program.

It’s not only students and alumni who fret that something is lost if the Internet increasingly mediates education. “The great social calamity of our time is that people are being replaced by machines,” wrote David Bromwich, a Sterling Professor of English at Yale, in the July 9, 2015, issue of the New York Review of Books. Bromwich, who was not critiquing Yale or any particular school but “the MOOC movement” writ large, envisioned a future in which teachers would be fired and schools defunded in favor of “the mechanization of the classroom.” Something ineffable and essential is lost when teacher and student connect only via screen, he wrote: “To what extent are the uniquely human elements of our lives, things not reproducible by mechanical or technical substitutes, the result of spontaneous or unplanned experience?”

I was thinking about arguments like Bromwich’s when I went to visit Lucas Swineford, the executive director of digital education with the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, on the last day of my stay in New Haven. Swineford, I had been told, was one of Yale’s digital masterminds, and endlessly patient in helping professors with their technological concerns. “Everyone knows he’s the go-to person,” Craig Wright had told me. (Wright added: “He must have a closet he can scream in.”)

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Swineford shares his office space in the Hall of Graduate Studies with two other people, so he met me instead in a large oaken conference room in Betts House, an 1868 New Haven mansion far up Prospect Street now owned by Yale. He told a story about working with Professor Ellen Lust of the political science department in one of the early, experimental online summer courses. He was helping Lust to bring in a research partner, who was in the Middle East at the time, by videoconference. Then, Lust asked Swineford something that surprised him: “Can’t I do this at any time during the year?” She wanted videoconferencing for her students.

He says that at that moment, he realized just how much the tools of online learning might improve the experience of a Yale education.

The sentiment was echoed by Ian Shapiro, the Sterling Professor of Political Science, when I visited him to ask about the MOOC version of his course The Moral Foundation of Politics. Shapiro maintained that the process had made him a better professor to his students at Yale: “It led me to completely rethink my whole approach to teaching, for the good, I think.” He had been lulled into a kind of autopilot in his lectures over the years, but making the MOOC with Coursera forced him to “think a lot about my relationship with the audience.” He suggested that bucking the online trends were quixotic at best: “You’ve got to learn to ride the elephant rather than get trampled by it,” he said. “If you want to be in the forefront of higher education, you have to come to grips with this stuff.”

When I asked around for the names of teachers who had achieved the gold standard of integrating online and in-person components in a Yale course, people kept mentioning a math lecturer named Jim Rolf. I went to find him in the math department. Over the last few years, I learned, he had transformed Math 115, an integral calculus course, into an extremely effective “hybrid,” whereby some instruction is offered in the traditional classroom setting and some is offered online. Inspired by a professor he had heard speak when he taught at the Air Force Academy a few years ago, Rolf became interested in how video lectures could supplement his classroom teaching.

In the fall of 2013, by then at Yale, he experimented with a so-called “flipped” classroom, in which students watch a video lecture at home before class and complete quizzes—which show the teacher how well they grasped the material. Then they come to class for supervised activities and discussion tailored to their general level of understanding. (He used the Coursera platform, since it allowed him to upload quizzes and monitor students’ progress, but limited access to his Yale students.) He laughs at those early, poorly lit webcam videos now. “I had eyes like a raccoon,” he says. He also made a poor sartorial decision that wound up causing a nausea-inducing interference pattern in the video: “I wore a striped shirt, because I didn’t know any better.” But the videos allowed animations to aid comprehension, and students could rewind and rewatch segments that puzzled them.

Anticipating skepticism of his novel techniques, Rolf collected data: he used a control group of students who were exposed to a traditional lecture, concurrent with an experimental group using the “flipped” approach. The “flipped” students showed an improvement of half a letter grade over their peers in the control—a statistically significant difference, says Rolf. By the spring of 2014, other instructors were joining him in the experiment; today, all sections of Math 115 are taught in this hybrid format. 

This is the goal: that technology not only amplify Yale’s educational reach, but also enable teachers to improve their teaching. Salovey had predicted in his inaugural address that “the most significant impact on our mission” would likely come from “digital resources that can improve teaching and stimulate learning here on campus.” It’s one reason Yale has reconstituted several offices that had supported teaching at Yale into a new one-stop shop called the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning. By summertime, the center will occupy more than 19,000 square feet across two floors of Sterling Memorial Library. Technology will be one element of it. Professors will be able to walk in, share an inkling of an idea for how technology might improve their course, and receive support from a specialist in making it happen.

For Craig Wright, the music professor with both Walter Isaacson and Mozart on his shelves, the final analysis of the newly digital Yale is nuanced. He was particularly excited about the way a definitive online course could amount to a “synthetic holistic statement” summing up all that a scholar knows. It could even resolve the ages-old tension professors feel between teaching and publishing. A strong online course, like a great book, “has the capacity to be something akin to a valedictory statement.”

At the same time, “I think I know enough to say that this is not a panacea,” he told me. “There are positives here, and very strong positives, but there may in some instances be some negatives.” And it is important not to forget the good old things. Sometimes, when he becomes overwhelmed with the brave new Yale, with the scrolling ones and zeroes that increasingly dominate his teaching, he tells his entire class to close their laptops. He turns out the lights and tells his students, “Let’s listen to nothing but 12 minutes of pure music.”

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