Keep seminars offline – by “Clinton W – YLT2012”

Yale professors are asking the administration to conduct online seminars or sections in the name of spreading knowledge. If Yale College Dean Mary Miller moves forward with the recommended program, it would be a slap in the face to Yale students and a surprisingly hasty move given how Yale has dragged its feet in hosting MOOCs.

Imagine yourself in a Yale seminar sitting next to a student from Quinnipiac, and you’re both getting the same credit for the course. The benefits? That QPac student is probably part of the grading curve. The downsides? Everything else. I’m all for spreading the knowledge around, but can’t we do this without degrading the Yale student’s experience? MOOCs are perfectly fine for that  – I can’t see or hear you on the other side of the screen, so I don’t care if you watch the video of my lecture.

Sure, maybe the application process selects only outside students who would contribute to the course (and who are willing to pay the exorbitant price). But the Yale experience is still compromised when an outside student is able to take the place of a Yale student, even one who would not contribute as much in the classroom. Typically, the best seminars or sections are all filled up by lucky Yale students who were able to get in during shopping period, either through the course lottery or application. So if Yale students now had to compete with outside students to enroll in a course, then we will have lost a very fundamental right as Yale College students.

I doubt that accepting outside students will in itself bring novel perspectives to the seminar that couldn’t be found by bringing another Yale student in instead, since so many of Yale’s own students have a broad range of experiences and come from a variety of backgrounds and countries. Even though previous online courses have included outside students, the courses were held over the summer, where they wouldn’t need to compete for spots with Yale students and where taking courses is not a right for Yalies, but a privilege that must be paid for (and costs $3000, to be precise), and where professors were also free from their responsibilities during the school year. This issue is less one of being open-minded and willing to welcome outside students into our classrooms as it is about preserving the benefits of being a Yale student. We can only share the Yale education insofar as it does not infringe on Yalies’ right to attend the classes of their choice and benefit from the Yale education – particularly considering how difficult it currently is to get into many good seminars.

As far as using the online medium itself for seminars and discussions, I’m unsure that it does anything to enhance the experience. While it no longer allows students to sit quietly in the back of the classroom, it now allows students to surf the web or their email during class. It is also harder for students to directly engage each other in discussion via the bizarre combination of instant messaging and video chat, and it may also make it more difficult for the professor to get to know the students in the class.

I understand some forward-looking professors may want to experiment with the online medium, and having the online option for summer classes alone is useful since students who are at home or studying abroad can continue to take classes, giving them more flexibility rather than being forced to stay in New Haven for Yale Summer Session. But during the school year, it simply doesn’t make sense to have the entire class held online unless it actually improves the class experience, which hardly seems to be the case.

Online-only courses have great potential to improve introductory math and science lectures, where a great professor’s online lecture would do much better than a graduate student’s poorly delivered lectures in person; where skills are adopted by students at widely different rates; and where most students merely take the course as a prerequisite, or to develop foundational technique and knowledge. But unlike lectures, seminars are based significantly on the interactions among the students, and thus there is so much more that is lost when a seminar is moved online versus a lecture. And after all, seminars are often the classes that come to mind when Yalies think of their best classes – not lectures (and for those Yalies whose favorite class is a lecture, they probably never took a class that wasn’t a prerequisite, and/or the professor should probably be teaching a seminar instead).

Dean Miller, keep seminars offline, and at least keep outsiders out of our seminars.

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3 thoughts on “Keep seminars offline – by “Clinton W – YLT2012”

  1. So in other words, you want to discriminate not on willingness to pay or academic achievements, but on who was here first, on who is half-bred or thoroughbred Yalie? Further, I think you completely underestimate the power of diversity. For instance, it is the standard within universities not to hire their own Phd students to a teaching position. Why? because they will have a hard time contributing with something knew. Likewise the universities gladly take in PhD students from schools that you might call lesser – because they have something NEW to contribute with. This goes for your precious Yale as well. Granted there is a difference between a student and a teaching position, but you have to admit, that if even the university itself will – as a main rule – prefer to hire scholars from other universities, maybe the other universities aren’t so bad. And lastly, the implicit logic of your argument that other students won’t contribute anything new, because Yale already has so many international student, is that Yale has somehow just got it right with the level of diversity, that not a single diversifying student more would benefit the school. If so. Prove it.

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  2. I had this discussions with two deans of the graduate schools and regarding graduate education and there is definitely a dilemma on how to enter the online world. We all agreed about the geographical flexibility benefits (like you mention for summer courses) but they were thinking of a version that was less MOOCs and still preserving “exclusivity”. And by exclusivity I mean hard to get in, and not free.

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