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A Lecture Heard ’Round the World?

New council to probe how technology might revolutionize BU’s education

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

Such “massive open online courses,” known by the inelegant acronym MOOCs, conceivably could benefit enrolled on-campus students, says Elizabeth Loizeaux, associate provost for undergraduate affairs, “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 summers 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.

MOOCs have supporters and detractors in academia, on both financial and pedagogical grounds. The innovation is just one of many that Loizeaux, a College of Arts & Sciences English professor, will spend this academic year studying with colleagues on President Robert A. Brown’s recently appointed Council on Educational Technology and Innovative Learning. 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.

BU already has extensive online offerings. But the council’s two leaders say they’ll probe many other possibilities, including MOOCs, in pursuing the president’s charge to find “innovative ways to improve the quality of education and expand our reach.”

Other innovations the council will explore include linking students studying abroad in different countries online; developing online courses solely for students in other countries; creating classes in which students create some of the material to be studied and discussed; and modifying existing large lecture courses to spend more time in small discussion groups, linked by laptops.

“This is a time of real transformation in higher education, when we are rethinking the models and strategies for education on a global scale,” says Loizeaux. “The ability of technology to expand the variety of ways of learning and teaching, and when and where they happen, can make education more flexible and potentially reduce time to degree completion and improve retention and graduation rates for students.”

Bestavros adds that “educational technology can open up opportunities to those for whom education was not readily available before, and 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.”

The council, which is to report to Brown by the end of spring semester, expects to organize workshops, small working groups, and other forums with students and staff, both to gather public input and to recruit community members to assist council members in their task, the two chairs say.

Brown’s goal in forming the committee, he said in his announcement email to students and staff, is to harness computer technology to solve one problem—the runaway costs of traditional higher education, with its professors in classrooms with students—and to leverage its potential “to reach new cohorts of graduate and undergraduate students” and improve on-campus education. He noted BU’s head start in high-tech teaching: 4,400 graduate and professional students enrolled in online courses last year that grossed $37 million for the University.

But he appointed the council, he wrote, to answer several questions, including whether undergraduate education, particularly large lecture classes, could be balanced between online and in-person learning; how those innovations would change the hiring demands for faculty and information technicians; which courses might be optimal to offer “on a global scale in a massively open format”; how to develop quality standards for evaluating existing or proposed online courses; and whether technology permits faster, less expensive degrees.

For guidance, “The council will be looking both within and outside of BU for models of innovative uses of educational technology, not just online courses,” says Bestavros. Media reports and academic studies have offered conflicting evidence of the pros and cons of online learning as compared with the traditional, in-classroom kind, and the two chairs say the council will be cognizant of how to evaluate any innovations it recommends to Brown.

“It’s good to remember,” says Loizeaux, “that blackboard and chalk are technologies, too.”

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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