Two professors produce online classes with GEN

Two Williams professors taped online versions of courses this summer with the Global Education Network (GEN).

Charles “Chip” Lovett, a professor of chemistry, filmed “AIDS: The Disease and Search for a Cure” and Colin Adams, a professor of mathematics, filmed “Introduction to Calculus,” with the New York-based distance learning company. GEN was co-founded by Mark Taylor, a professor of religion, and Herbert Allen ’62, a venture capitalist.

The chance of experimenting with the new and evolving technology appealed to Adams.

“We’re doing things you can’t do in the classroom, but that you can do in this medium,” he said. “So many options open up once you get out of the constraints of the time frame.”

For example, Adams said, he was able to act out his favorite acceleration-of-gravity word problem, in which a student drops an avocado out of a window and accidentally hits his roommate, who is studying outside on the lawn.

“I was intrigued by the possibility of making my class accessible to a broader audience,” Lovettt said. “[But] because I teach the same course here at Williams, doing the GEN course will be a big bonus for my class here since I can use materials developed for the online version to enhance the course.”

According to the two professors, taping an online course is a lot of hard work. “Altogether, I did 29 hours of lecture in nine days,” said Lovett. “Although it was a lot of work, I really enjoyed the taping experience. The producer, the director and camera crews were a pleasure to work with. They were experienced professionals who were excited about the enterprise and committed to making this a product of the highest quality.”

According to Alexander Parker, vice president of programming and curricular development for GEN, quality is key to the company’s philosophy.

“Herbert Allen is relentless. It must be of the highest quality,” Parker said. “From day one, Herbert and Mark would not drop any of the quality at all.”

GEN plans to offer Lovett and Adams’ courses beginning in January 2001, along with eight other classes filmed by professors from Wellesley College and Brown University. Within the next three to four years, Parker said, GEN hopes to increase the number of courses to 200 to 250.

According to Parker, students – probably retired persons and high school students – will enroll for the courses at GEN’s website, http://www.gen.com. They will be able to “shop” for classes by watching a course’s first lecture, which will be free of charge.

“[It’s] a new communication medium and there’s the opportunity to get a fantastic education out to a broader audience,” Parker said. He described an online class as a “two-way portal,” consisting of a series of lectures and modules.

According to representatives at GEN, Wellesley and Brown, both institutions have a relationship with GEN, but due to a non-disclosure agreement between GEN and the institutions, they were unable to discuss details about its extent and nature.

Last year, GEN approached Williams and other top liberal arts colleges and universities with a deal to produce and offer online courses through its company. The Technology Committee, co-chaired by Kim Bruce, a professor of computer science, and Sherron Knopp, a professor of English, recommended last spring that the College not enter into an institutional agreement with GEN.

“A major concern was the association of the Williams name with a distance learning company,” Bruce said. “[Committee members] were afraid that in many people’s minds, it would associate getting from distance learning what you can get in the classroom.”

Bruce said that Williams’ role as a prestigious liberal arts institution puts the College in a unique position with regards to distance education. “If we were at UMass-Amherst, we would respond differently. We would push hard for distance education,” he said. “We have a valuable commodity here. We don’t want to take a chance and associate with something that could devalue it.”

But Adams said that GEN is fast becoming a known quantity. “When GEN approached the College, one of the problems was that GEN didn’t have a track record,” Adams said. “Now that a couple of us [professors] have done it, our colleagues are starting to look at it more.”

The committee will present its report at Wednesday’s faculty meeting.

“The ongoing debate is whether the college should take a position on this at an institutional level as opposed to the current practice of allowing faculty members to engage in this activity individually as long as it stays within the bounds of college rules,” said Michael Brown, a professor of anthropology who was a member of the Technology Committee.

Bruce was enthusiastic about professors individually taping online courses. “It’s great for the faculty to be experimenting with this technology,” he said. “[But] it is quite different from instantly buying into it [as a college].”

Edward Burger, a professor of mathematics, has been working with online learning technology in creating “virtual textbooks” with the Texas-based company Thinkwell for the past three years. About 50 other calculus classes at colleges and universities across the nation use his virtual textbooks, including Burger’s own Math 103 calculus class at Williams.

“I’ve inverted the roles of homework and classwork,” Burger said. Students watch the lectures at home, but “in class, it’s time to do work.”

“Acquiring knowledge through the lectures is part of homework,” Burger said. “Learning about the difficulty and getting feedback is what the classroom is for.”

Although it could appear that online education stands poised to replace the residential college education, professors find the technology lending itself well to the liberal arts experience.

“I see these e-courses as a means of supplementing, rather than replacing, the regular curriculum,” said Mary Lefkowitz, a professor of classical studies at Wellesley, who taped “Classical Mythology” with GEN this summer. “Taping the lectures made me realize how much one could learn in a real classroom situation. I would love someday to be able to use in a real classroom some of the technical effects that GEN can provide online – simultaneous maps and pictures, for example.”

But academics on both sides of the argument agree that distance learning is something that people cannot afford to brush aside.

“The Internet is clearly the wave of the future, and those of us in higher education would be foolish to ignore this means of reaching both old and new audiences,” said Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown, who taped “Mass Media” with GEN.

“For [small residential liberal arts colleges] to abandon the field to others would be irresponsible, but also not in our best interest because we’re good at this stuff,” said Guy Rogers, a professor of history at Wellesley, who created an online version of his popular class on Alexander the Great. “We’ll find ways to transform what we know about teaching in ways they cannot.”

“Whether we like it or not, distance education will have a profound effect on Williams, if only because it is transforming the broader ecology of higher education within which this college operates,” Brown said. “Its effects are likely to be limited and indirect at first. Farther down the road, it’s hard to tell.”

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