Research at Boston University

Education at Home & Abroad

By Rich Barlow

What if millions of people around the world with internet access could join Boston University students and take University classes—online, for free, without getting the academic credit BU students pay to receive?

Academe is abuzz over MOOCs, massive open online courses, which could allow a Siberian with a laptop and internet access to take a class taught on Commonwealth Avenue. But the group charged by President Robert A. Brown with refining BU’s online education has different marching orders: students on campus should benefit as much as people far from Boston.

Online courses are just one of many innovations that Elizabeth Loizeaux, associate provost for undergraduate affairs and professor of English in the College of Arts & Sciences, has been studying with colleagues on President Brown’s Council on Educational Technology & Learning Innovation (CETLI). Loizeaux cochairs the council with Azer Bestavros, a CAS professor of computer science and director of BU’s Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering.

These MOOCs conceivably could benefit enrolled on-campus students, says Loizeaux, “by allowing them to get credit for BU courses that are offered as MOOCs, with implications on overall tuition costs and schedule flexibility.” BU students could take a MOOC during the summer or while studying abroad, for example. Studying summers could cut the number of semesters they’d pay for studying on campus. And taking a MOOC while living at home would spare them room and board costs.

“Educational technology can open up opportunities to those for whom education was not readily available before,” says Bestavros. “It can expand the options for lifelong learning. Creative thinking begets creative thinking: new educational technologies enable new pedagogical innovations in the residential classroom as well as in the blended and the online environment.”

To that end, 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.

Membership obligates BU to offer five MOOCs via edX, says University Provost Jean Morrison. While MOOCs typically enable people around the world to take a university class for free, sans credit, BU and edX also espouse blended, or hybrid, courses: for-credit classes that mingle face-to-face instruction with online work.

“The hybrid model provides the best of both worlds,” says Loizeaux. “It promotes the face-to-face nature of classroom interactions,” both students-to-teacher and between students. It simultaneously 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 significant global reach, both by making BU professors and courses accessible to a global audience and by increasing global connections for BU students. For example, international experience might be enhanced by online minicourses before, during, and after a study abroad program or internship; online modules or courses could connect BU students with other students around the world; and online courses might even enable international study by students whose schedules currently keep them at home.

The first hybrid courses on edX likely will be available “within the next couple of years,” Loizeaux says, while the MOOCs will be available in one year. EdX will complement, not replace, BU’s Blackboard e-learning system.

BU already has extensive online offerings. With current studies yielding various takes on the benefits of online versus face-to-face learning, the council chairs want to make sure any new innovations meet BU’s standards.

To help realize its vision, the council asked professors to help design the education of the future. A handful of seed grants were awarded this spring to help faculty develop and test “creative uses of educational technology.” Meanwhile, a series of roundtables on various aspects of online education were held on the Charles River and Medical Campuses. Participants discussed the ways in which technology might facilitate three-year degrees and how to develop faculty compensation along with educational technology.

“The council is looking at all forms of online technology in support of education, not just MOOCs, not just online courses,” says Loizeaux. “We’ve been talking to faculty members who are interested, say, in involving their students in the building of digital archives. What about the possibility of a course that might be focused on Boston, where students were doing research projects on architectural objects, and could perhaps feed that into some kind of archive or repository that might even be accessed by visitors?”

“The question about MOOCs is, can you do this at a high quality?” says Loizeaux. “There are many things that residential, face-to-face education is good at. How do you support that?”

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