Opening the Door to Digital Education
BU joins leading online course platform edX.
By Rich Barlow
Photos by Vernon Doucette
Ready to open those e-books? Boston University will soon be offering online courses that complement on-campus learning while giving higher education opportunities to alums, students on the other side of the world, and even BU parents.
BU has joined edX, the Harvard-and-MIT-led online learning platform that shares the University’s commitment to using technology’s benefits for students on campus as well as off. The partnership will give BU professors more flexibility in designing their courses and discerning which educational methods work best with students.
As part of membership, BU will offer five MOOCs (massive open online courses) through the edX platform, says Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer. MOOCs typically enable people around the world to take a university class for free, without academic credit. But BU and edX also espouse blended, or hybrid, courses: for-credit classes that mingle face-to-face instruction with online work, says Elizabeth Loizeaux, associate provost for undergraduate affairs and co-chair of the University’s Council on Educational Technology & Learning Innovation (CETLI).
edX spokesperson Dan O’Connell says hybrid courses allow professors to shift time normally spent on lectures to one-on-one or small-group teaching, to field trips, or to additional lectures delving more deeply into topics. “The hybrid model provides the best of both worlds,” says Loizeaux, also a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English. “It promotes the face-to-face nature of…classroom interactions,” both teacher-to-student and among students. It offers students “the flexibility to access content online at their own pace,” she says, while allowing faculty to use technology for “presenting information and assessing learning outcomes in ways that are not possible in a traditional classroom setting.”
edX will also extend BU’s global reach, both by making BU professors and courses accessible to an international audience and by increasing worldwide connections for BU students. For example, study abroad might be enhanced by online minicourses before, during, and after the main course; online modules or courses could connect BU students with other students around the world; and online courses might even enable students whose schedules currently keep them at home to study abroad.
Loizeaux says edX’s ability to help professors evaluate how well students are learning course material was a big factor in BU’s choosing it over other platforms. The edX platform is designed to capture data on how students learn, she says, a capability that put it head and shoulders above other platforms BU considered because it will aid professors in understanding which approaches best advance student learning. For example, says Azer Bestavros, CETLI co-chair and a CAS professor of computer science, “Course evaluators can see how often a student rewinds to review parts of lectures—possibly indicating that clarifications are necessary—and also see which factors affect students’ completion of courses. Such data goes beyond that available from face-to-face courses offered by BU and taken by BU students.”
With more than 200 universities worldwide hoping for admission to edX—and with several elite institutions already in—“we are extraordinarily excited to be joining edX,” Morrison says. “It gives us the opportunity to collaborate with the consortium members on using their experience to better understand online learning.…We can learn from each other and develop best practices around higher education.”
Interested in taking a class? Visit www.edx.org to see the courses already available.
A version of this article originally appeared in BU Today.