A University Senate task force is wading into one of the hottest topics in higher ed: the question of online education.
The task force, which was established by the senate last year, will explore Columbia’s current online offerings and examine its options going forward. The committee met for the first time Sept. 19, a day before the University opened registration for its first two massive open online courses.
“We’re in the data-collecting mode. We are working on pilot programs of courses and we are seeing which other offered courses can be adapted to online learning,” Assaf Zeevi, the Business School’s vice dean of research and a member of the task force, said. “So far, the experience has mostly been in areas with undergraduate classes with very high appeal that can be pitched to a large audience.”
Columbia will offers its first two massive open online courses through Coursera next semester, but several schools, including the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Continuing Education, the Journalism School, and Teachers College, have created their own online courses and initiatives over the years.
The task force, which is being led by Senate Executive Board Chair Sharyn O’Halloran, will work to unify Columbia’s online education offerings.
“Columbia has 20 schools. We’re very decentralized, which is a good thing, since it allows individual departments and faculty to create initiatives,” task force member and astronomy professor James Applegate said. “However, at the same time, the senate is the only institution Columbia has for the function of town hall meetings. The task force will play that same role, only more specifically for online learning.”
The committee met last week with Stanford University professor Daphne Koller, one of the founders of Coursera. Still, Sree Sreenivasan—a Journalism School professor who was appointed Columbia’s first chief digital officer in July—said that Coursera “is just an example of what we can do.”
“Right now, we’re talking with many other vendors and platforms to see what works best for us,” he said.
There has been a surge of activity in online education over the last year, with MIT and Harvard partnering to launch edX and schools ranging from Princeton to the University of Pennsylvania signing up for Coursera. But even with universities scrambling to open their courses to the world at large, University Senator Akshay Shah, SEAS ’14, said the senate task force is focused on Columbia students first.
“Our biggest priority is to make full-time, tuition-paying students get benefits from Columbia taking courses online,” Shah, a member of the task force, said. “This could open up the option of students studying abroad. If they have to fulfill requirements, they could just take exams at the global centers.”
Task force member Jerry Sherwin, CC ’55, added that Columbia could also cater online courses to alumni.
“Our target right now is Columbia students,” he said. “Other targets could eventually be alumni and whoever wants to take the course.”
Shah said that he and Journalism School student Philip Stephenson, the task force’s other student member, are interested in getting more student input on online education. He added that they might reach out to the student councils, hold town hall meetings, or survey students on their views.
“Many of us in the committee are from a different generation, so we look to the students to see what they feel the learning experience should be like,” Zeevi said.
Whatever input students give, Applegate believes that online classes will revolutionize learning.
“I believe that this will bring the golden age of liberal education,” he said. “If you are in a situation where information is scarce, access to information is a key factor and valuable resource. Online learning can provide that access.”