Yale Finds the Right Platform for Its Online Classes

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With dozens of Yale students leaving for internships around the world at the end of each spring semester, the university wanted to offer a series of online classes that undergraduates could access from anywhere during the summer, whether they were working in China or Brazil.

But Yale did not want to provide the typical asynchronous, online class in which students listened to a video lecture and posted comments on a discussion board. So the university created an innovative model for its first online courses through Watchitoo, a company that provides a multi-streaming video collaboration platform for universities and corporations.

Here’s how it works: Each student accesses the online course at a designated time through Canvas, Yale’s learning management system. Once they have clicked on the Watchitoo link, the students’ pictures are displayed in a grid in separate thumbnail webcams, with a slightly larger picture of the professor at the top of page.

In the center of the screen, the professor can post videos, PDFs, or PowerPoint presentations. For 75 minutes twice a week, the class holds discussions in this online forum for courses on everything from Jazz and Race in America to The Mental Lives of Infants and Animals.

“Students come to Yale for that social learning experience, and we wanted to have an extension of that online,” says Rich Collins, Yale’s Summer Session Online Learning Program Manager. “It’s really like an enhanced Skype session, but the platform itself is designed for a classroom experience.”

The five-week online courses were so successful after they were piloted in 2011 that Yale has increased the number offered each summer. After starting out with two online courses the first year, 13 were offered last summer, and 19 are planned for 2014.

With a maximum enrollment of 20, the one-credit courses are structured so that students spend half the time in the online discussion sessions. The other half is focused on asynchronous assignments, including watching videotaped lectures and responding to a threaded discussion board through the Canvas platform.

Although the classes are open to anyone, the majority of students taking them are Yale undergraduates who have returned home for summer jobs or traveled to internships in cities around the world. The online discussions are scheduled so that they will be convenient to attend for anyone enrolled in the course.

“Having a global audience is difficult for scheduling,” Collins says. “But we try very hard to work with our faculty to make sure that none of our classes start before 9 a.m.”

The success of the summer online courses has led Yale to launch two hybrid graduate programs this fall—one in forestry and one in nursing. And for 2014, Yale will offer its first MOOC, another extension of its experiment in online learning.

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