Senate plenary examines
tech & higher ed
University leaders outlined Pitt’s strategies in integrating technology with education as part of the University Senate’s plenary session, “The Cyberlearning Revolution in Higher Education: Charting Pitt’s Direction for Instructional Technology in the Age of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).”
The April 18 Senate plenary drew 200 people to the William Pitt Union assembly room for an afternoon of discussions on online learning. Speakers included Cynthia Golden, director of Pitt’s Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education; Norman Bier, associate director of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University; Charles Perfetti, director and senior scientist at Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center, and Alan Lesgold, dean of Pitt’s School of Education.
In outlining both the promise and the perceived perils of MOOCs, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said, “As many of you know, in September 2012, Pitt announced that it was among the group of very strong universities that would be partnering with Coursera. We made this decision after much thought and study and we did so with the hope that this partnership would allow us to explore innovative ways of teaching, hone techniques that would contribute to learning and expand our reach.”
Nordenberg cited New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s call for institutions of higher education to move from a model of “time served” to “stuff learned” and his assertion in a column published in January that “Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC.”
While MOOCs are making headlines across higher education, Nordenberg pointed out that Friedman and others also concede that traditional residential college experiences, rich in teacher-student and student-student interactions, remain valuable.
The chancellor noted that David Brooks of The New York Times observed that online courses indeed may equal standard lectures at transmitting technical knowledge.
“However, he went on to argue for the role of the university, noting that what he called ‘practical knowledge’ is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized, it can only be imparted and absorbed.”
Among the MOOC model’s shortcomings, the chancellor noted, is that it is difficult to discern what students take away from the course. “Others have noted that students often don’t have the prerequisites to ensure that they can successfully complete a course. Evidence for this fact can be found in the fact that while a course may garner thousands of initial participants, it is a far lesser number who actually complete the coursework and earn the certificate. Still others have noted that cheating is a factor and have questioned whether it is possible to form a connection with thousands of students and provide constructive feedback.”
MOOCs are just one area in which the University is examining how to use technology to enhance student learning, said Provost Patricia E. Beeson in closing remarks at the Senate plenary.
“Moving forward we’re taking two approaches: Let’s think about it as an institution — what can we do and where do we want to position ourselves,” Beeson said.
“But more importantly, I think, moving forward, we’re looking at ways we can use this revolution to really engage in discussions about teaching, about learning and about using experiments in our classes to innovate and improve the way that we do our jobs — a very important part of what we do, which is to enhance student learning.”
Beeson said, “We have a real opportunity here through the revolution to think about teaching, to think about instruction, about how students learn and how we can enhance that learning. Some of it will involve technology. Some of it will involve just rethinking the way we think. And technology helps us to do that.
“When you put a course online you have to think about what that student’s learning and how they’re doing it. You have to start thinking about it from the student’s point of view instead of the instructor’s. That student-centered approach to learning is something that is being enhanced through this technology.”
Beeson said experiments, including MOOCs, are going on, while at the same time a task force is gathering information in order to develop the University’s broader strategy.
“I think that innovation and experimentation is the way we’re going to learn the most right now about how best to enhance our teaching and learning,” she said.
Beyond MOOCs, Pitt is part of an initiative involving multiple research institutions looking at how to better prepare students before they come to the University. It also is looking into using evidence-based approaches to improving learning in the STEM disciplines, Beeson said.
At the same time, Pitt’s Center for Engineering Education is engaged in examining ways to improve teaching in engineering, and experiments involving cross-campus course offerings are underway at Pitt’s regional campuses.
“There’s a lot that we can learn. Whether we end up remaining offering MOOCs is one thing that we’ll see down the road. We’re certainly learning a whole lot about how we can use that sort of platform to enhance what we do here on campus through our residential programs and through our online programs,” Beeson said.
—Kimberly K. Barlow