Information Technology

Letter from the President and the Dean about Online Learning, December 13, 2012

Dear Colleagues,
 
We write to provide a progress report on a College initiative to investigate online learning, to share a process for moving forward in this domain, and to outline a pilot program with edX.  A proposed process to govern faculty participation in the pilot will be brought to the Faculty for a vote at the Faculty Meeting on December 18.  This process, which we describe below, was developed this fall, in consultation with the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP), the Committee on Priorities and Resources (CPR), the Faculty Computer Committee (FCC), and the Committee of Six.
 
The pilot, which will encompass three to five courses with the edX Consortium over the next few years, will begin this spring (2013).  It is our hope that Amherst’s first course with an online amherstX component can be offered as early as fall 2013.  In response to the Faculty’s request that additional information be provided about the entities with which Amherst may partner, we attach a document titled “about edX” and include a brief fact sheet at the bottom of this letter.  Please feel free to write to us, either before or after the Faculty’s conversation, if you have questions or concerns.
 
Why Online Learning? Why Now?
Online learning is seen by many as the biggest experiment in higher education in half a century, and we feel that Amherst should take part in exploring its pedagogical potential.
 
While massively open online course (MOOC)learning initiatives such as edX, Coursera, and Udacity had been the province of prestigious research universities, things changed this fall.  Some leading liberal arts colleges, including Amherst, were asked to join in these and other online learning efforts to shape and learn from online education.  Since the development of new tools and approaches will occur in these consortia, we see an advantage in participating in initiatives at this formative stage and in playing a role in shaping and refining them.  Collaborations that encourage Amherst faculty to experiment with new pedagogical technologies in an online environment could yield innovations in teaching and learning on campus. We and many members of our community believe that offering free access to high quality Amherst courses, as rigorous as those we offer on campus, is consistent with, indeed advances, Amherst’s mission.
 
We feel strongly that online learning could enrich what takes place at a small residential liberal arts college, if our approach and guiding principles remain true to our liberal arts mission. Blended instruction (practiced on campus as an outgrowth of what our investigations into online teaching and learning teach us) would be intended to enhance on-campus learning, but not displace the role of close colloquy between students and faculty, and between students and students, in a physical classroom, lab, or studio.  Our approach to online learning will center around what Amherst values most—student-directed education and the profound transformative power of what goes on in the classroom. These anticipated benefits to the traditional, residential, classroom-oriented education at Amherst are what make participation in the edX experiment critical.  We cannot fail to provide our students with the most effective and rigorous education possible—and the landscape of possibilities is changing dramatically.
 
A Summary of Campus Conversations and Steps Taken Thus Far
We and other members of our community have devoted a good deal of time in a concentrated period to investigating a number of online learning entities. While the pace has been brisk, our approach has been deliberate. Bringing ourselves up to speed about this new and rapidly changing world—learning about different delivery platforms and financial models and absorbing terminology—from MOOC to “flipped classroom” (thinking about ways to present material, including the use of online tools, to make the most effective use of class time)—has been an enjoyable challenge for many of us.
 
Our first conversations with an online entity occurred this fall when we spoke by phone with representatives from Coursera, a commercial provider founded by two Stanford computer scientists that offers free online courses using a MOOC model.  Soon thereafter, 2tor (which has since changed its name to 2U), a for-profit online program developer, approached us to see if we would be interested in being a part of a group of elite colleges and universities to create a program that would provide courses to undergraduates for credit. We also met with edX, a non-profit consortium started by MIT and Harvard that offers courses in a MOOC format, about becoming a member of its consortium board.  Those of you attending one of the two presentations by 2tor will recall that its model fundamentally differs from the MOOC model in that 2tor uses both asynchronous and synchronous content, with the goal of more closely replicating the classroom environment.  However, 2tor requires the use of a large number of TAs, in order to keep its synchronous discussion sections manageable.  In addition, 2tor courses are only available to tuition-paying students at schools comparable to those comprising its consortium.
 
After conversations with representatives from these entities, Greg provided an overview of the administration’s interest in online education to the CEP on September 14, and Jack Cheney and Gayle Barton had the same discussion with the Faculty Computer Committee.  As you recall, we discussed our interest in investigating online learning at the Faculty Meeting of September 18.  After Coursera announced seventeen new partners the next day, and we observed the variable quality of their offerings, we decided to focus our attention on edX and 2tor. Over the next several weeks, representatives from 2tor and edX came to campus for a series of meetings, including several open meetings for faculty.  During this time, we continued to consult with faculty committees, including the Committee of Six and the CEP, as well as the Instruction Committee of the Board of Trustees, to inform our thinking.
 
Progress since the Faculty Meeting on October 16
Since the last conversation with the full Faculty on October 16, the Board of Trustees discussed online learning at its meeting on October 20 and expressed support for making a financial commitment of $2 million to support online teaching and learning initiatives.  The Trustees requested that the administration provide them with additional information about edX and 2tor, and keep them informed as conversations on campus evolved.
 
Guiding Principles and Criteria
After discussions with individual faculty, faculty committees, members of the administration, and the Board, some criteria and principles for decision making have emerged for considering partners in online learning. There seems to be a good deal of consensus that our primary aspirations and foci in making decisions about potential partners should be, as they have been thus far,developing innovative pedagogies in collaboration with peers that share our fundamental educational values, enhancing the reputation of the College through the offering of rigorous courses representative of an Amherst education, and providing access to educational resources of the highest quality both to those who will never travel to Amherst and those who may be enticed to do so.  It is our hope to judge our success not only by how many we will teach but, more importantly, by how much we will learn.  If no new tools or methods of teaching are developed that enhance learning on campus, the results of the experiment would be both a surprise and a disappointment.
 
A Decision to Focus on edX for Amherst’s Initial Experiments with Online Learning
After evaluating the consortial agreements that edX and 2tor proposed, and receiving feedback from members of the Amherst community and peer institutions that were also considering whether to partner with these entities, we have come to the conclusion that edX better fits our goals of experimentation and learning than does 2tor at this time. One significant sticking point with 2tor was the requirement that courses offered through its platform would be credit- bearing.  Principal criteria in our evaluation of these agreements included the term and level of commitment required of us, and the flexibility the College would have to opt out and take the intellectual products of our work with us. It seems clear that, with our lack of experience in online learning, the models of support offered by edX would help us be successful, as well as allow us to shape the conversations around how to move humanities and social science courses online. Interestingly, we learned after making our decision that none of the liberal arts colleges that had been invited to join 2tor chose to do so at this time.
 
A Proposal to the Faculty
The proposal that will be brought to the Faculty has been developed in consultation with faculty committees and vetted by the Committee of Six, the CEP, the CPR, and the FCC.  Emphasis will be placed on incorporating the enhancements of online learning into the on-campus forms of the courses. Amherst faculty members will work with professional developers from edX, taking advantage of edX research on effective teaching and presentation methods, to develop state-of the-art learning resources for students on campus and off. Working with the faculty and staff from MIT and Harvard will ensure that we are learning from some of the best in the online learning world.  Moving forward with the pilot will require an investment of $2 million. As mentioned earlier, the Trustees have indicated their support for this effort and their intention to authorize this funding.
 
Additional Opportunities
edX has experience delivering math and science courses, with virtual lab exercises, to a global audience. edX is very interested in moving into humanities and social science courses and is currently working with Harvard’s Peter Bol on a Chinese history course. The sheer number of people taking the courses requires that small-group discussion be handled creatively, in ways edX is still exploring. The edX platform will be released as open source and can be used in three ways:  as part of the open edX system, in a “sandbox” arrangement so Amherst could pilot courses before going public, and in a closed system for alumni or others. The consortium of edX schools is designed to bring colleges and universities together to discuss best practices in open online education.  Our collaborations and experience will educate our faculty and IT staff in the use of state-of-the art technology and online education. The technology and the learning tools that we develop will be extended to on-campus courses via faculty and our Academic Technology Services (ATS) group.  We will convene a faculty seminar, modeled after the successful working group developed for the Mellon-funded research tutorial project, to provide a forum for faculty interested in the development of online and blended learning models.  The working group will enable colleagues to share experiences, problem-solve with one another, and discuss the roles of technology in teaching and learning.
 
Since edX is open source and will provide at no-cost its open platform, our ATS staff will learn to facilitate the development of online course formats other than the MOOC.  For example, we will be able to develop and host courses along the lines of the 2tor model and experiment with blended learning.  Both models may be useful in optimizing some Five-College teaching and learning collaborations.  
 
Proposed Process for the Pilot Project
 
During the pilot project, the Committee of Six will review issues that arise and refer consideration of them to appropriate faculty committees.
 
All those who participate in online learning will teach an on-campus course (the Amherst course) and an online version of the same course (the amherstX course) simultaneously.
 
Course Selection and Approval
Courses will be selected for development as amherstX courses through a competitive proposal process. All proposals to participate in online teaching will  include a course description of the on-campus Amherst course. This course may be a new course or a course that has been offered previously. Where possible, the proposal should describe the ways in which the amherstX course, taught on the edX platform, will be developed, and the ways in which blended learning and other online tools may be used as part of the on-campus Amherst course.
 
Each proposal will require the approval of each faculty member’s department(s).
 
Once approved by the department(s), proposals will be submitted to the Dean of the Faculty.
 
The Dean of the Faculty will vet these proposals with the CEP, which will offer recommendations on which courses/faculty should be selected.  The Dean will make the final decisions about which courses will be offered.
 
Proposals for new on-campus courses that will also be taught online will be approved following standing procedures by departments, the CEP, and the full Faculty.
 
Capital Expenses
Amherst College will pay edX $250,000 to develop each course and run it the first time, and $100,000 to run a course each additional time. One possible model could be as follows:
 
2013-2014     Four new courses, two each semester ($1 million)
2014-2015     Offer the same four courses ($400,000)
2015-2016     Offer the same four courses ($400,000)
2015-2016     Offer two courses ($200,000)
 
Faculty Compensation
Additional compensation will be offered during the period of course development, which may occur either during the semester or in the summer, and again during each semester in which the course is being offered (see schedule below as an example). Faculty members will receive a stipend of $8,000 (the Five-College course borrowing rate for full professors) for developing the online course and an additional stipend of $8,000 each time they offer the online course.  Resources will be provided to fund two academic interns (undergraduates who generally have taken the course previously) to monitor discussion forums, under the direction of the faculty member.
 
First Semester (or Summer)
Teach two Amherst courses that are on-campus only (if during the semester)
Work on developing an amherstX course that will be taught in parallel with an
on-campus Amherst course in the next semester
Receive stipend ($8,000) for time spent developing the amherstX course
 
The Following Semester
Teach one Amherst course that is on campus only
Teach a second Amherst course on campus
Teach an amherstX version of the second course online through edX
Coordinate with edX staff to update/modify course materials
Receive stipend ($8,000) for overseeing the amherstX course—including directing
the student interns
 
Other Expenses
It is proposed that two academic interns (undergraduates who generally have taken the course previously) monitor discussion forums. Academic interns can provide support (twenty hours a week total, ten hours a week each) at about $3,000 per course, totaling $42,000 for the four-course model outlined above. Staff time will be allocated according to College priorities.  Information Technology staff time will be planned in consultation with the FCC.
 
Faculty members who participate in the faculty seminar on the role of technology in teaching and learning will receive $500 for each semester in which they are a part of the seminar. The projected cost of the seminar is $10,000 a year, totaling $30,000 over three years.
 
Assessment
The CEP will report annually to the Faculty on the pilot project, drawing on the expertise and assistance of the Office of Institutional Research.  Included in the report each year will be the FCC’s assessment of the support required for Amherst’s Department of Information Technology’s participation in the pilot. The annual report will be shared with the CPR and the full Faculty.
 
While this is a lot of information to absorb, it seemed best to share as much of it as possible before our meeting on December 18, to inform our discussion. We look forward to continuing our conversation about online learning with you.
 
Yours,
 
Biddy and Greg
 
Facts about Edx

  • Started by MIT and Harvard in 2012 (mitX founded one year ago), following MIT’s ten-year experience with open courseware
  • Offers courses to the world in a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) format
  • Wants to shape the future of higher education and to provide greater access to education; is as committed to improving on-campus instruction as it is to open global access to education
     
  • Received initial seed funding of $60 million from Harvard/MIT. UC Berkeley joined later and contributed technical expertise. The University of Texas joined this fall, followed by Wellesley and Georgetown this month
  • Designed as a non-profit; seeks to be self-sustaining
  • Plans to grow slowly and selectively, finding institutions that share the commitment to excellence and open education
  • Can be used on campus in a blended model, independent from or as a complement to the MOOC. Will be open source and can be run on campus for non-MOOC or targeted courses
  • No credit is given, but member institutions may choose to offer certificates free or for a charge
  • UniversityX is a consortium of schools involved in edX, sharing best practices and working together to advance the goals of excellence in online and on-campus courses
  • Requires a $2 million investment from Amherst; edX would use this funding to develop new courses ($250,000 each) or re-run existing courses (at $100,000 each)
  • Offers Amherst the opportunity to have online courses in a limited-enrollment model, such as for alumni or incoming students.

 

A deliberative way forward and best wishes for the break, December 21, 2012

Dear Colleagues,
 
We write on the last day of the semester to wish you a relaxing break and to assure you of a deliberative way forward on the discussion of our possible participation in edX.  There are good reasons for concern and opposition to the initiative and good reasons to give individual faculty and the community an opportunity to experiment with it.  
We clearly need to have a more informed and thorough examination of perspectives, and the Committee of Six will discuss a timeline at its first meeting next semester.  Following up on the helpful suggestions made at the Faculty meeting, Jack Cheney has agreed to work with a small group of faculty with varying perspectives to gather additional information, answer the questions that can be answered, and prepare findings and analyses concerning MOOCs and the edX pilot to share with the faculty.
 
As to the question of the eventual vote, it would not be in the interests of the College to pursue a direction that a strong majority of faculty opposes.  At the same time, it is not clear that the good of the College or its individual faculty will be served by a decision that forecloses on the opportunity for interested faculty to develop courses and offer them on the edX platform, taking advantage of the expertise and help of edX staff.  We think we are in a gray area on this matter; further discussion among the members of the Committee of Six and the faculty will help clarify procedural issues while offering more information on MOOC's and online learning.
 
We look forward to more in-depth discussion of this possible initiative at our next meeting(s).  It would be helpful if we could have a decision by sometime in April.
 
Enjoy the break.  We wish you a Happy New Year!
 
Biddy and Greg