Student: What about “Concepts of Biology”? Big State University is offering it online this summer, and I need it for my core requirement.

Dean: I see a few problems. The course seems entirely self-paced. You review PowerPoint presentations and take quizzes when you feel ready.

Student: What about this Shakespeare course? Famous Flagship University is offering it online, and I have an internship during the day, so I can’t take an in-person summer course.

Dean: I don’t see evidence of interaction with faculty and fellow students.

Student: But, they’re ranked higher than Georgetown!

And so it went in the spring of 2014.

In summer 2013, the College academic deans gathered in Herndon, Va., to consider for the first time allowing online courses to count toward a Georgetown degree. Over the last several years, online courses had proliferated nationally.
Our students had made clear the appeal of such courses: They offer flexibility, expanded options and access to learning from highly reputable institutions. University leadership was intrigued, because online courses offered new economic models for delivering instruction.

However, the deans were concerned that the mediation involved in digital technology might separate students from faculty, substituting a simulation of interaction in place of the rich relations possible between faculty and students in classrooms, in office hours and out of class.

Recognizing that the future is now, we created a new policy that would allow our students to transfer as many as four online summer courses. Of course, the devil would be in the details.

As with any non-Georgetown credit, students would have to propose courses for review and approval. We wanted to help students to identify high-quality online courses.

We had no idea how difficult this would be.

We started by considering the most important aspects of traditional, in-person teaching and learning. Successful course design and pedagogy feature a progressive organization of learning, intentionally structured by faculty, but allowing students to fill in and to complete the learning experience. Successful traditional courses involve regular and sustained interactions between teacher and learner, in classrooms and out.

We also recognized the potential of technology to improve the traditional learning experience. Digital technology allows faculty to flip the classroom, shift lectures to digital space, and free class time for discussion, engagement and the collaborative exploration of problems.

After much debate, we determined what we wanted to see: courses progressively organized with intermediate deadlines throughout the term, strong evidence of class interaction and regular instructor feedback. For us, the most important quality of a good online course was the engagement and involvement of the faculty member. Because technology structures distance between faculty and students, online courses must be even more intentional in designing creative ways for faculty to interact with, respond to, provide feedback to and assess students.

We received a small flood of proposed online courses. We soon discovered that too many of these were robo-courses. Like the robo-call, an automatic simulation of human telephonic interaction, many of the courses we reviewed seemed to simulate, but not deliver, real interaction and real learning. Many offered little instruction and minimal assessment. Students were asked to read, sometimes to blog, very occasionally to comment on the post of a fellow student.Faculty lurked somewhere in the background, emerging only to provide brief responses to posted assignments.

But we didn’t give up. We imagined the possibilities and limitations of online learning. We worked to express reasonable and coherent ways to determine whether an online course featured the active guidance of a faculty member or meaningful interchange and collaboration among students. We understood that reviewing an online course involved both looking ahead and looking back.

During her address at Georgetown, University of Virginia President Theresa Sullivan connected the future to past practice: “The future of the university depends first and foremost on the power of human ideas and the transmission of knowledge between the uniquely human relationship between the teacher and the student.”

Like Sullivan, the College deans hold that “the uniquely human relationship between teacher and student” is fundamental. We actively sought evidence of this human relationship while reviewing scores of online syllabi.

For example, in the first generation of online courses offered in the summer by Georgetown, Stefan Zimmers’ HIST-007 course structured twice-weekly, hour-long, live-video discussions to provide the necessary human teaching element.

Heading into our second spring of online course review, we remain optimistic and vigilant, looking to preserve our traditions of teaching and learning while taking measured steps toward a hybrid future. In order to move beyond the robo-course, we focused as much on that which we cannot afford to lose as on what we hoped to gain.

DeanCook_SketchBernie Cook (COL ‘90, GRD ‘91) is an associate dean at Georgetown College and director of the Film and Media Studies Program. He is one of the alternating writers for The Dean’s Desk, which will appear throughout 2015.

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