Faculty members reflect on their experiences with digital teaching

Four faculty members have worked with the Center for Teaching and Learning to to experiment with collaborative, digital education initiatives.
Four female faculty members pose near the Women's Table

From left: Mary Evelyn Tucker, Anees Chagpar, Laurie Santos, and Diana Kleiner. (Photo by Harold Shapiro)

Just as the composition of our faculty and the diversity of our student body have changed, our approach to teaching must continue to evolve as well,” said President Peter Salovey during his 2013 inaugural address.

Over the last 18 months, four female faculty members have worked with Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) to disseminate their knowledge more broadly via massive open online courses (MOOCs) and to experiment with collaborative, digital education initiatives such as a companion mobile application related to a new MOOC and experiential learning opportunities for alumni.

Education at the epicenter of our lives

Technology is changing the nature of education which means that faculty with the inclination to experiment should embrace it.  Self-directed learning is giving way to collaborative learning,” said Diana Kleiner, the Dunham Professor of History of Art and Classics and the instructor of Yale’s Roman Architecture MOOC. “What excites me most is that online education makes it easier to learn at all times and in all places and thus situates education where it should be —at the epicenter of everyone’s lives — not just during the student years but as a lifelong endeavor.”

Kleiner is an art historian, author, and founding director of Open Yale Courses (OYC), a digital education platform with 42 course offerings from multiple disciplines and departments. Her experience with OYC gave way to Yale’s partnership with Coursera, a MOOC platform based in Mountain View, California.

The university currently offers 19 courses on Coursera and has plans to launch a new MOOC with psychologist Laurie Santos in January 2018. Online initiatives at Yale are faculty-driven; the CTL responds to and partners with faculty, chairs, and deans to launch new courses or projects.

I’ve been teaching online for nearly two decades via three consecutive platforms: AllLearn, Open Yale Courses, and Coursera. The major vehicle has been my best-known lecture course, ‘Roman Architecture,’” said Kleiner.

Kleiner believes that her simultaneous involvement with on-campus and online teaching allows her to apply pedagogical strategies used in one format for the other and vice versa. During the 2017 summer recess, Kleiner and Yale Educational Travel led an experiential learning trip to Italy for the Yale community and alumni of her Coursera MOOC.

Since I participate actively in the course’s online discussion forums, I already knew many of the participants,” said Kleiner. “Discussions in front of the monuments were collaborative, lively, and thought-provoking and expanded naturally into reflective conversations over meals.”

Kleiner’s field trip incorporates principles of experiential learning, where students first obtain knowledge, perform an activity, and reflect on their experience. By exploring the ruins of sites studied in the course, said Kleiner, students walk away with a better understanding of the material covered in “Roman Architecture.”

From field trips in Italy to discussions about the universe, Yale faculty have adapted the MOOC format to create a range of learning experiences for students.

Expanding educational reach digitally

Mary Evelyn Tucker — first Yale faculty member to launch a Specialization (a series of related courses on a related topic) on Coursera and the first faculty member at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies to teach a MOOC — introduced her popular Journey of the Universe, project to thousands of learners in an online course format. These courses consist of an Emmy Award-winning film, a book published by Yale University Press, and a series of 20 interviews that Tucker conducted with scientists and environmentalists. The Journey project, created over 10 years, weaves together the sciences and the humanities to narrate the epic story of evolution with a concern for the future flourishing of the Earth community.

If we want to have a broader impact with ideas, clearly we need to engage with the digital world,” said Tucker. “Our scholarly books and articles will reach a relatively small audience, but a film like “Journey of the Universe” has already reached several million through its three-year broadcast on PBS and now through the Yale MOOCs available around the world. In the fall these courses will be offered in Chinese, which will extend their reach as well.” 

Tucker now teaches all of her in-residence courses via a hybrid format with lectures and readings online and in-person discussions. She teaches these courses with John Grim, her husband. Both of them are senior lecturers and senior research scholars in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the Divinity School, and the Department of Religious Studies.

There is no doubt that online education involves a considerable amount of preparation. However, the rewards are palpable when you see the results of focused learning with time for critical questions and engaged discussions,” said Tucker. “I could not accomplish as much with just a seminar class or just a lecture class.”

Mobile app promoting mental health

Tucker’s points are not lost on Laurie Santos, professor of psychology, director of the comparative cognition laboratory, and Head of Silliman College. Santos wanted to launch a MOOC and in-residence course focused on the science and practice of well-being after developing a short version of the course for Silliman students.

I worry a lot about my students' mental health, and I wanted to do all I could to make sure they're thriving and living the best lives they can,” said Santos. “The science of psychology has lots of insights about these topics, and I thought it'd be fun to synthesize them and teach the students more about what science says about living better.”

Santos believes that psychology presents a lot of information to help resolve human problems, but empirically-oriented psychologists often face challenges when trying to share or apply their findings to real-world problems.

To help learners enrolled in the course, Santos and the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning are building a mobile application to provide helpful information and daily well-being practices for Yale students, online learners, and those who download the app.

Digital education platforms can let us harness a bunch of different technologies at once, from in class videos, to live interviews, to apps to change behaviors,” said Santos. “These platforms can also allow us as educators to reach way, way more students.”

The 'new generation of learner'

Dr. Anees Chagpar, a noted surgeon and educator, agrees with Santos. Chagpar’s course, “Introduction to Breast Cancer,” launched at the end of 2016, making it Yale’s first MOOC produced by a faculty member from the School of Medicine. It explores the basic biology of the disease, risk factors and prevention, treatment modalities, and survivorship.

It is a little bit unfathomable to know that we reach not hundreds of students, not thousands of students, but tens of thousands of students all over the world, and it tends to be something that we try to make interactive and continually growing and changing,” said Chagpar. “The responses that I receive on the discussion board and on social media continue to state that students enjoy the course and that they really learned something from it. That is something that I think every professor hopes to hear.”

Chagpar, a lifelong learner herself, has earned an M.D., three master’s degrees, and an M.B.A. in addition to her bachelor’s degree. Her self-described passion for learning has influenced her career trajectory and has inspired her to reflect on how students want to learn.

 “I think the new generation of learner is really interested in connecting at a more visceral level with content, such as a 10 to 15-minute lecture with questions interspersed into the lecture so that they can test their understanding of the knowledge right then and there,” said Chagpar. “Having a massive open online course platform really gives you the versatility in terms of how you teach to experiment with different modalities of getting information across that may resonate better with different learners.”

Chagpar designed her course to include interactive sessions with other professors and information disseminated on twitter to foster live discussion, something often organically created in residential classrooms, she noted.

Democratizing the field

There are certainly challenges to overcome with digital education, including the creation of collaborative and inclusive environments for faculty and students, but the benefits of an accessible education cannot be discounted, note the faculty members.

I think women face different challenges when putting their content online then men do. Women scholars who put their work online often face comments about their bodies and clothing choices more often than men do,” said Santos. “Women can also experience harassment and threats from work publicized online. So I think there are important gender biases that result in different consequences for men and women.”

Santos is not alone in recognizing that female faculty members face different challenges.

According to the American Association of University Women, “In one study, top female college and university leaders cited discouragement, sabotage, and unfair expectations as barriers to leadership. The women reported a lack of understanding and support from family and colleagues, as well as different expectations for themselves and their male peers.”

Chagpar, who describes her field as a male dominated occupation, believes that strides have been made but hospitals and universities still have plenty of room for improvement.

I think we have a lot of work to do to really even the playing field, but I think that one of the nice things about massive open online courses is that it democratizes the field,” said Chagpar. “These are by definition massive, open, and online, which means that they are open to anybody, all over the world. What has been so gratifying to me is that so many people have access to these courses. They are free and they allow people to obtain a background and may give them some confidence to go into fields that may be male dominated.”

CTL helps faculty 'hit the ground running'

The Center for Teaching and Learning has tried to foster inclusive classrooms on-campus and online by inviting faculty to partake in the Diversity and Education Series, publishing digital resources about strategies for creating inclusive classrooms, and by supporting a range of scholars as they look to teach online.

Even though journalists sometimes describe a dumbing-down of contemporary culture, there are millions of people worldwide who love to learn for the joy of learning,” said Kleiner. “As the internet links these individuals, the circle of learning expands exponentially. I learn something new everyday from the people who participate in my online course. Yale’s new Center for Teaching and Learning offers Yale faculty the opportunity to hit the ground running with digital education, either at Yale through Canvas, or beyond.”

To learn more about Yale’s digital education initiatives and faculty resources, visit the Center for Teaching and Learning and Yale’s Coursera website. To read about other faculty members teaching at Yale, subscribe to Teaching Excellence at Yale and review the archive of newsletters

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