Monday, April 30, 2012

Better Leveraging On-Line Teaching--A Call for Support from Admintrative Units

The financial and reputation values and costs of on-line and distance learning are becoming better known.  Some universities use these principally to leverage their faculty's ability to produce tuition.  This is a worthy goal in financially dynamic times.  But other, more forward thinking institutions, are also considering the way in which these efforts could be used to enhance institutional and professorial reputation and influence within academia and in broader circles where the production of knowledge and its dissemination is valued. 
(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2012)

Penn State certainly falls within the former category.  It ought to seriously consider moving into the other.  One way to do that might be to encourage its faculty along the lines already much in evidence at Yale and similar institutions; and by encourage I do not mean merely with words and best wishes.  Consider a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and other institutions are old hands now at taking course material from the classroom and lab and putting it online for learners anywhere to use. Yale University may be the first to reverse the process, using its Open Yale Courses as the basis for an old-fashioned book series.
This month, Yale University Press released the first batch of paperbacks based on lecture courses featured in the online-learning program. Priced at $18 and available in e-format too, the books are meant to expand the audience for the course material even further, according to Diana E.E. Kleiner. A professor of art history and classics at Yale, Ms. Kleiner is the founding project director of Open Yale Courses.
“It may seem counterintuitive for a digital project to move into books and e-books, because these are a much more conventional way of publishing,” she says. But the Open Yale Courses are about “reaching out in every way that we could.” That includes posting audio and video versions online (via Yale’s Web site, YouTube, and iTunes), and providing transcripts and now book versions of the lectures.
Having transcripts of their lectures to work with gives faculty authors a jump-start. “It was incomparably the easiest book I have ever written,” says Shelly Kagan, a Yale professor of philosophy whose lecture course on death has become one of the Open Yale program’s most popular offerings. “I just started with the transcripts and treated that as a first draft.” The book that resulted, also called Death, has already been reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. (From Jennifer Howard, At Yale, Online Lectures Become Lively Books, Wired Campus, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 26, 2012).

An initiative like this seems perfectly suited to Penn State's recent aggressive moves in the field of on-line learning.  Though more fearful of the open campus model than Yale or MIT, Penn State has been developing some capacity for capturing a number of the excellent lectures given by our faculty.  Its World Campus course catalog also appears to be growing aggressively and deliberately.  

Now might well be the time for unit administrators, and if not them, then World Campus or others, to begin to think about ways in which they might support (and by support I do not mean with good wishes) similar efforts.  It seems to me that with the help of the Senate, perhaps, our unit administrators--deans, chancellors, etc., might be rewarded by efforts to provide substantial support to their faculty in aid of the production of works like these.  The reputation enhancing effects could be significant, and the benefit to the University beyond that far in excess of the dollars used to encourage and sustain such efforts.  

But, of course, that might suggest revisiting the ill advised move toward a regrettably misguided and overreaching approach to conflicts of interest in "profiting" from teaching from materials developed by the instructor. More on that in subsequent posts. 

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