Killer App for Higher Ed



–By Bill Giduz

College adopts best practices for online learning.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) now being launched for motives both altruistic and commercial could be the “killer app” for higher education—or merely a niche application. They prompt a great deal of discussion, but educators are unsure of their ultimate role in the educational landscape.

“The purpose is still hazy,” wrote one educator on a discussion board. “Are MOOCs best viewed as a supplement for traditional college students, continuing education credits for adult learners, or a full degree program for learners in the developing world? The answer is probably some combination of all three, plus more TBD.”

Rather than sit on the sidelines and wait to see how MOOCs might affect Davidson, the college has decided to actively explore online education so it can adopt the best practices and avoid the pitfalls. “Our interest is in determining how an online platform will allow us to go further in ways we don’t imagine now,” said Mur Muchane, executive director of information technology.

Last summer President Carol Quillen announced that Davidson has joined the edX consortium for online learning. This non-profit alliance was founded by Harvard University and MIT just a year ago, but is already recognized as a leader in the field. EdX enrolls 1.2 million students through 29 affiliated institutions of higher education worldwide. Most at this point are large universities. Davidson and Wellesley College are the first small, highly selective edX liberal arts institutions.

DavidsonX in the Works

EdX now offers 72 online courses covering a broad range of topics, and will roll out 60 more this fall. Next spring edX will offer the first of four planned online courses by Davidson faculty members.

Davidson’s contract with edX stipulates that the college produce four “DavidsonX” courses (as they will be called) over the next three years. A committee invited faculty and staff members to submit course proposals, and received nine from which the final four were selected.

The first DavidsonX course will be “Medicinal Chemistry,” followed by “Representations of HIV/AIDS,” “Linear Algebra From Hogwarts to Google” and “Electronic Literature.”

The courses will not be for-credit Davidson courses, but will be offered online through the edX portal at no charge to anyone worldwide who chooses to enroll. People who complete an edX course will receive one of several types of certificates of achievement.

The current agreement calls for each course to be presented only once. However, if the initial venture goes well, President Carol Quillen said Davidson will develop additional courses over the next several years.

Professor of Chemistry Erland Stevens is excited by the opportunity to create a new format for his “Medicinal Chemistry” class. “DavidsonX is a great incentive to examine presentation of the class material to my on-campus class,” he said. “It’s a license to take risks I might traditionally avoid. The sky’s the limit!”

The challenge for faculty is reimagining their courses in an online form, explained Muchane. “It’s much more complicated than writing out your lecture, going to class and delivering it,” he said.

So Stevens is currently working with the college’s instructional technology staff to develop bite-sized mini-lectures of just a few minutes that will be followed immediately by quizzes on the material. The pedagogy of brief lecture and immediate assessment is emerging as an efficient way to increase retention and mastery of the material.

Stevens expects that creating and presenting the course will be a valuable process, and he doesn’t mind serving as a “guinea pig.” He said, “It will give the college an understanding of how online courses work, and online courses have potential to be major players in college education.”

Gathering and Engaging

A major part of the edX initiative to create high-quality, high-tech learning is research on how learners interact with its materials so that the pedagogy can be continually improved.

President Carol Quillen explained that Davidson’s leadership venture into online instruction should yield benefits inside Davidson classrooms. “Our hope is that the new technologies and pedagogical techniques in these DavidsonX courses can help us innovate in our own teaching here at Davidson,” she said.

The involvement of Davidson students in DavidsonX courses is another likely innovation. Professors may train and assign Davidson students to serve as forum moderators in the online course. The moderators will explain material to the online students, assure that conversations are appropriate, and help shield professors from being inundated with correspondence and questions.

Visiting Associate Professor Mark Sample, who directs the college’s digital studies program, see page 15, is eager to try out that pedagogy. He plans to teach the online version of his “Digital Literature” course during the same semester he teaches it in the Davidson classroom.

Muchane commented, “At the simplest level DavidsonX courses will allow us to do more of what we already do in the classroom—engaging students rather than lecturing to them. With a MOOC you ideally build a community of students who learn from each other. The system allows them to constantly assess their knowledge, and to proceed at their own pace.”

English professor Ann Fox and biology professor Dave Wessner have twice previously taught a regular classroom version of “Representations of HIV/AIDS.” Fox expects that presenting the course in conjunction with its DavidsonX offering in fall semester 2014 should enhance learning both in the classroom and online.

“DavidsonX is a way to invigorate in new ways a class we’re already excited about,” said Fox. “There are seismic shifts occurring around the world in social, scientific and artistic thinking about HIV/AIDS, so it makes sense to bring the outside community into our class. Can you imagine what type of conversations will come out of a class where the whole world is in the classroom?

Wessner noted that opening up the classroom conversation to the entire world will likely let in some controversial and perhaps virulent ideas. But there’s a valuable lesson in that as well, he said. “It’ll be interesting for the class to decide what we do with extreme opinions. Do we ignore them, attack them, or respond and try to move them from their position? It’ll be an intellectual challenge to cope with that.”

Davidson’s most experienced voice in online education at this point is Associate Professor of Mathematics Tim Chartier. On his own initiative, Chartier launched a course on another online learning site, uDemy, that enrolled 8,000 people. His DavidsonX course will demonstrate applications of linear algebra in areas such as computer graphics, predicting the outcome of sporting events, and Google’s PageRank algorithm.

Chartier asserts that there is a place in education for both classroom and online learning. “I have seen that such courses reach much farther than I can ever travel, and touch people interested and not interested in mathematics,” he said. “Through a MOOC we can share one of our greatest assets—our ability to inspire learning.”

Investments and Returns

Though students worldwide will be able to take DavidsonX courses free of charge, there is a cost to Davidson. Professors will receive reduced course loads or monetary compensation for creating online courses, and the productions will involve a tremendous amount of time from the faculty involved and support staff.

But Pat Sellers, Associate Dean for Curriculum and coordinator of the edX partnership, believes the initiative will have significant benefit here. “We hope that the collaborations with edX will bring real improvements to our classes meeting on campus,” he said. “The projects can help us figure out how to expand our use of blended learning, instant assessment of student learning, and other pedagogical innovations. Our goal is to ensure that Davidson continues to offer the best possible undergraduate education, and that will undoubtedly include applying the lessons learned from our on-line collaborations.”

While those involved are eager to innovate and experiment in the traditional Davidson classroom, no one is predicting that Davidson will begin creating for-credit MOOCS to replace the existing curriculum. But, Sellers believes that we can’t ignore the technological changes sweeping across the higher education landscape.

“These changes might not have as big an impact as some think, but there’s no denying that technology allows us to teach in new and innovative ways, and online classes are one way to explore the possibilities.

“If I wasn’t coordinating the edX partnership, I would have submitted a proposal for a DavidsonX course myself,” he said. It would surely provide an opportunity to innovate in the classroom in ways I haven’t yet imagined. As a Davidson teacher, that’s incredibly exciting.”


About Author

Bill Giduz '74

Bill Giduz’s association with Davidson began in 1970 when he enrolled as a freshman. Nine years later he attended his fifth reunion, learned of an opening in the communications department, and has now worked gratefully in that office for 34 years. He commutes on two wheels, juggles on Sunday afternoons and regularly plays basketball with much quicker young men.

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