College to consider private company’s online courses offer

The College is investigating a proposal by the technology company, Global Education Network (GEN), which plans to transmit taped lecture classes over the Internet in order to utilize the new and influential field of online or distance learning. GEN is making offers to other top liberal arts colleges and the Ivy League Universities. Each online course potentially could bring about a quarter of a million dollars per course to the College.

GEN, a private technology company, was co-founded by Williams’ Cluett Professor of Humanities Mark Taylor and philanthropist and Williams alumnus Herbert Allen ’62, who recently donated $20 million to the College to build a performing arts center.

The Technology Committee, an ad hoc committee, which reports to President Carl Vogt, co-chaired by Frederick Latimer Wells Professor of Computer Science Kim Bruce and professor of English Sherron Knopp, is investigating the GEN offer to the College.

“The purpose of the committee is [to decide] whether we should get involved with [GEN],” Bruce said. “Basically there are options for a substantial amount of money to come into the College as a result of this. But there are negatives to getting involved—including the expansion of the College’s goals and the possibility of pulling professors away from perhaps what we want them to do more, like focusing on classroom learning, working one-on-one with students, and instead, moving toward a more performance-based notion of teaching.”

According to Bruce, the committee is also considering the concept of online learning in general and how to coordinate online teaching with on campus classroom teaching.

“I like to think of what’s going on with computers right now as this massive experiment,” associate professor of mathematics Stewart Johnson said. “I’m looking forward to some things that can help on campus in the classroom. Things like virtual blackboards on the web and discussion groups [which have] a running bulletin board discussing topics of the class might be wonderful supplements to the class.”

But concerns over the translation of a live in-class learning experience to an online distance one exist. “What you need to have an effective classroom experience and what you need to have an effective broadcast experience or online learning experience are different,” Bruce said. “Talking heads are incredibly boring.”

The fifteen members of the Technology Committee are undecided on GEN’s offer to Williams. “We haven’t come to a decision whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but certainly one of the concerns is if the College name is associated with something, what does it say about the College,” Bruce said. “It may say we’re the source of very good teachers that are into innovation, that are thinking ahead. Or it may say that we’re associated with pretty crummy production values and what we’re presenting over the net is so different from what a Williams education is supposed to be like that it may in fact blur the distinctions between Williams and places where you typically sit in a lecture hall with 500 students.”

Ultimately, GEN plans to have each participating college or university provide five courses per year via the Internet to be used over a three to five year period. An auditor could take an online course for around $500, and a person could take a class for credit for about $800. According to Bruce, the credit awarded would not be Williams College credit.

“Online education will reshape institutions of higher learning in the United States and elsewhere,” James N. Lambert ’39 Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Committee of Educational Policy (CEP) Michael Brown said. “So it is of critical importance for the College to determine whether and under what terms it will participate in the development of these technologies.”

But, according to Johnson, technological change takes root slowly at the College. “I think the most exciting things are the way we can use the web for the classroom,” he said. “We’re not doing a good job of it now. There are a number of professors that are posting their syllabi online, but there are less than a dozen professors that are engaging the web in any bigger form for the classroom. I think that there is going to change in the next three or four years. We are going to see a lot more innovation in that direction.”

Online courses would most likely take the form of lectures. “[Big lecture courses] are the courses which would be most amenable,” Bruce said. “It would be hard for me to imagine an introductory French course being taught this way. You need constant feedback. So any kind of course which would be heavy into discussion would be difficult. Large lecture courses would be easiest to move. They’re not far from that now.”

Legal issues about the ownership of and conduct in producing online courses are fuzzy. Harvard Law School Professor Arthur Miller made his taped lecture courses available on the web-based Concord University School of Law in June, sparking the administration to charge him of violating a faculty law, which states that a faculty member’s primary professional responsibility is to Harvard University.

“There are some issues with this [online learning],” Bruce said. “I would presume if a faculty member wants to teach a course and have a regular Williams course taped with a video camera in the classroom that they would have to negotiate with the College to how that is done and presumably some profit sharing with that. But on the other hand, if you go somewhere else [to tape], does Williams own some of that intellectual property? That is harder to answer.”

The Technology Committee is still in the exploration stage. Bruce plans to present a report about the GEN offer and online learning at the February faculty meeting. “We want faculty to be aware of what’s being discussed,” he said.

According to Bruce, it is likely that Brown University and Cornell University will accept GEN’s offer while it is almost certain that Harvard University and Princeton University will reject the plan. None of the colleges or universities have officially committed to GEN’s plan.

Large state universities already offer many online technical courses aimed at training employees of companies to teach them specific software or skills. The University of Massachusetts, for example, offers its Video Instruction Program (VIP) to cater to such an audience.

Audiences for Williams’ online courses would include alumni inquisitive about new innovations at the College and in the fields taught at the College, retired people seeking intellectual stimulation, and high school students looking for enrichment to make up for a lack of Advanced Placement courses at their schools.