by James A. Bacon
About a year ago, Philip Zelikow, the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia, knew little more about online learning than the average man. But one day he found himself in an executive retreat at the Boar’s Head Inn with Meredith June-En Woo, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, to brainstorm the college’s future.
The subject came up of online learning and the recent launch of Coursera, a Silicon Valley-funded start-up that had signed up some prestigious universities to teach so-called massively open online courses, or MOOCs. “Email Coursera,” Woo told Zelikow. So he did, then and there. And thus started the College’s engagement with state-of-the-art online learning.
UVa’s Darden School of Business had already initiated contacts with Coursera, but Zelikow became the College’s point man. Indeed, he became so engaged in online learning that he now teaches “The Modern World: Global History since 1760,” to some 70 UVa students and 25,000 other enrollees around the world. Last night Zelikow regaled an audience of Richmond-area UVa alumni with observations about his experience in online education and how it will transform the University of Virginia.
The bottom line: Zelikow sees online learning as enhancing the experience for university students residing on campus but also opening up opportunities for a lesser, though still valuable, education around the world.
Further, he said, the University of Virginia will be a leader in this brave new world. “We’re on the eve of a transformation of higher ed around the world. It will be led by about 15 universities. The University of Virginia is one of them.”
The standard method for teaching a college history course has not changed in centuries, said Zelikow, whose non-academic accomplishments include heading the 9/11 Commission and working as a deputy to Secretary of State Condelezza Rice. The professor delivers lectures in a lecture hall students who passively take notes. Later, the students break into smaller classes where they interact with graduate teaching assistants.
The MOOC works very differently. Zelikow spent considerable time up-front converting his lectures into 92 video presentations of varying lengths that students could view at any time on their own. The lectures are supplemented by reading and digital-source materials accessible online and quizlets by which students can test their mastery of the knowledge going forward. UVa students can participate in discussion forums with 25,000 students enrolled around the world. Getting the perspective of a student from Colombia, say, on South American independence revolutions can broaden their understanding.
What’s more, because he wasn’t delivering lectures, Zelikow has time to interact with his UVa students. He has broken his class into two, which allows him to conduct meaningful discussions.
Zelikow says that the exercise has allowed him to develop a more powerful version of the course he has taught for years, and it forces students to stay engaged consistently throughout the semester as opposed to alternating between goofing off and cramming for tests.
Creating MOOCs is expensive — hundreds of hours of work must be invested up-front. But making that investment allows UVa to powerfully enhance the residential college experience. “This is not about doing education on the cheap,” Zelikow said. “This is about how to leverage 21st century technology to reinvent the classroom.”
UVa is determined to be one of the handful of elite institutions that shape the market for online learning, Zelikow said, but it is not yet clear how the effort will be paid for. His justification at this time: Online learning “powerfully enhances the experience of the students who pay the tuition. Parents are willing to pay for something that enhances their children’s experience.”
Online learning is still evolving and even Coursera hasn’t figured out yet how to make a lot of money from the technology, he said. “We want to be in the space because we recognize the potential.”