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Mass Video Courses May Free Up Professors for More Personalized Teaching


New York University plans to join the growing movement to publish academic material online as free, open courseware. But in addition to giving away content—something other colleges have done—NYU plans a more ambitious experiment. The university wants to explore ways to reprogram the roles of professors in large undergraduate classes, using technology to free them up for more personal instruction.

This fall NYU will start publishing free online videos for every lecture in as many as 10 courses. They include classes on New York City history, the biology of the human body, introductory sociology, and statistics.

Previous open-courseware projects tended to be text-based, with content like syllabi and lecture notes. NYU’s site would expand the online library of academic videos available to the general public.

What’s more unusual, though, is the vision to build souped-up versions of the material for NYU students only. Freed from the copyright restrictions of publishing on the open Web, these video courses would have live links to sources discussed by professors in passing, as well as pop-up definitions and interactive quizzes.

All of the content would be embedded in an academic social-networking platform, according to a concept paper provided to The Chronicle by Dalton Conley, dean of social sciences, who is leading the online project.

Most striking of all is what this plan could mean for professors. “The real payoff is in the additional faculty time it frees up for one-on-one instruction,” Mr. Conley writes in the paper. “Rather than have to pay our research faculty to stand in front of a room and teach the same classes over and over (after all, when’s the last time Calculus I really changed?), with one fewer course to teach, they can now take on the role of faculty curators.”

Mr. Conley compares such curators to Oxford and Cambridge dons of the past, albeit “minus the sherry wine.” They would serve as intellectual guides, meeting with students in person and online, requiring them to attend events like departmental seminars, and involving the best ones in their own research.

For NYU’s steep tuition—about $39,000—students would get an experience that feels more like graduate school, Mr. Conley says.

“We’re faced with the question of how do we justify the existence of a Research I institution that’s tuition-driven,” he says. “I think that integrating the students into the research life of the university is the answer to that.”

Globe-Hopping Studies

But unlike those who studied with dons of yesteryear, these students will be located around the world.

Mr. Conley will be part of a small group of professors testing this online model in an international pilot project expected to begin in 2011. He plans to teach introductory sociology classes at two or three places around the world, an itinerary that could include Abu Dhabi or Florence, Italy.

The course sections will run simultaneously. Core material will come from the already-created online content, with local facilitators running the discussions in each country. Mr. Conley will travel to all the sites for intensive workshops.

Stephen E. Carson, president of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, says he has not heard of any other efforts like NYU’s. Some professors have taken similar steps informally, he notes. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, home of OpenCourseWare, the granddaddy of these online projects, some professors let students study Web-based materials at night. The goal is to devote more class time to working on problems rather than lecturing, says Mr. Carson, who is also director of external relations at the MIT courseware project.

Professors who assign some sophisticated online material produced by the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University have reported similar changes in classroom focus.

But if students are paying so much money for an elite education, would they really consider fewer face-to-face lectures more valuable? Wouldn’t they want live lectures by rock-star professors—professors like, say, Princeton’s Cornel West?

“Maybe this doesn’t work for a superstar, overenrolled person like Cornel West,” Mr. Conley says. “It would work for me, because I don’t think the students are coming to NYU to see me in person. ”

He acknowledges that there could be negative consequences for student learning: “Is it more of a sink or swim? Or could someone skate though with minimal interaction? Probably.

“But hopefully students who would be attracted to this kind of thing would be self-selected because they want to engage.”

NYU Opens Up Online

These are the first courses that New York University plans to put online as part of its free open-courseware project.

American Literature I (Instructor: Cyrus Patell)
Calculus I (Instructor: Kiryl Tsishchanka)
Genomes and Diversity (Instructor: Mark Siegal)
Introduction to Sociology (Instructor: Harvey Molotch)
The Body: How It Works (Instructor: Burt Goldberg)
Human Genetics (Instructor: Justin Blau)
New York City: Social History (Instructor: Daniel Walkowitz)
Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences (Instructor: Elizabeth Bauer)
World Cultures: Ancient Israel (Instructor: Daniel Fleming)

Source: New York University

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