The growth of online education has brought more than just wider access to knowledge. It is also allowing colleges and universities an opportunity to experiment with completely new ways to deliver learning to their students.
Experimentation of this kind is what led Daphne Koller, a professor at California's Stanford University, to leave and co-found the online education platform Coursera. And that is the same reason that drives Joshua Kim, the director of learning and technology for Dartmouth's Master of Healthcare Delivery Science Program.
Kim is excited about bringing the internet into the equation not only because it widens the audience for Dartmouth's offerings, but also because it has the potential to grow its faculty. When courses aren't tied to a physical location, attracting top teaching talent – even talent outside the local geographical area – becomes easier.
That doesn't mean that by throwing its virtual doors open wide, the school will abandon the close, personal relationship with its students that has set Dartmouth apart all these years. Kim is very aware of this potential issue, and keeps it in mind as he debates whether entering the global education movement will mean betraying the Dartmouth's "keep education personal" ethos.
The College is approaching the trend cautiously, according to classics professor Roger Ulrich, a member of a newly formed committee organized by the Provost's Office to examine opportunities for online learning at Dartmouth. The College considers itself a "high-touch" learning environment, and values student-faculty interaction, Ulrich said. Administrators aim to use technology to enhance classroom experiences.
Hanlon said that information technology has the potential to improve the College's undergraduate offerings.
Hanlon doesn't believe that with online education, a choice of one or the other must be made. If done well, offering students an option of internet-enhanced courses could improve the overall academic experience rather than diminish it.
For example, introducing an online component could completely redefine the purpose of a traditional lecture. Material could be covered mostly independently via video and other digital tools and class time could be used for analysis, discussion and interactive activities to strengthen understanding.
Dartmouth's Master of Health Care Delivery Science program already uses this format. Students spend six weeks out of the 18 month-long course on campus and participate in a combination of real-time conversations and discussion board-based activities during the rest of the program, according to Kim. This blended course allows students, most of whom are full-time professionals, to continue working while they are enrolled. At the undergraduate level, professors can use blended learning to increase their classroom efficiency by posting videos of basic material online and spending time in the classroom interacting with students, Kim said.
This kind of approach has additional benefits. By freeing the professor from moving at the pace of the slowest student in their class and by providing a place where everyone can bone up on the basics, the amount of material that can be covered in one course can jump delivering more educational bang for the tuition buck.