What We Can Learn from Bryn Mawr’s Online Learning Experiment

The Online Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon is a project for creating and using online learning modules as part of college courses.

As I’ve written several times (link, link, link) for this blog, most media attention these days in the higher education arena is being is focused on MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – with their superstar professors, hundreds of thousands of enrollments, and the controversial responses by naïve boards of directors. However, some very interesting experiments in college teaching and learning may end up having a greater impact on institutions like William & Mary even if they aren’t attracting as much attention from the mainstream press.

Integrating Courses from the Open Learning Initiative

One example of that is a recent article in Inside Higher Education that highlights experiments by Wesleyan and Bryn Mawr, in integrating courses from Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative into their curricula. For more than a decade, development specialists and researchers at Carnegie Mellon have been developing courses reflect a scientific, team-oriented approach to learning.

These course materials are available free of charge to any institution or instructor who wants to make use of them. The early work at OLI was focused largely on helping community colleges develop effective ways of delivering high enrollment gateway courses with consistent quality. The results of that work have been impressive, particularly in the areas of statistical reasoning. (An extensive PDF with results of the development of the statistical reasoning course is available online.)

But Bryn Mawr Is All About Personal Interaction with Students, Right?

The Bryn Mawr experiment is designed to use those resources in a different arena. It’s hard to imagine an institution more committed to personal interaction that Bryn Mawr with its student faculty ration of 8:1, undergraduate enrollment of only 1300 women, and a historical commitment to traditional face-to-face learning. The faculty involved in this project have clearly defined their purpose as using the predefined modules to “reinforce their hands-on teaching model rather than subvert it.”

One psychology professor is experimenting with course materials to teach core statistical concepts more effectively, thereby leaving more time at the end of the semester for students to apply concepts to authentic research projects. According to the IHE report, the OLI modules are “consciously designed” to provide students with guidance through the equivalent of textbook materials while quizzing them frequently along the way.

By constantly gauging comprehensive, software gets a detailed read on the strengths and weaknesses of individual students and generates new tips and exercises aimed at closing the gaps in their understanding.

The same software that provides feedback to the individual student also gathers information about every student at every institution using the courses. This allows the developers of the program to expand their understanding of the learning process and make tweaks and adjustments to the software platform as a whole. In addition, faculty members get detailed information about students completing the work before coming to class. Tailoring the face-to-face experience by responding to the data can help the faculty member make classes more focused, engaging, and interactive.

What’s more, these new modules may prove to be most effective for use with students from underprivileged backgrounds, since the modules themselves are “designed with unprepared students in mind.” This is been one of the primary focuses of the experiment at Bryn Mawr, according to the article in Inside Higher Education.

This Model Could Benefit Everyone

Properly applied, the model Bryn Mawr is testing has the potential to benefit everyone. The individualized feedback students get allows them to “master the material” more quickly — in some cases twice as quickly as with traditional models. Faculty members are freed up from presenting the same material over and over again to groups of students — some of whom of already learned it, while others struggle just to pass the tests. The entire educational system benefits when the data from thousands of students can be used to constantly refine and improve the course currently being taught by thousands of individual instructors.

Unfortunately we may never know how well the experiments work. According to the piece in Inside Higher Education, Bryn Mawr’s provost said “that she did not want to deter experimentation by professors by circumcising the conditions under which the technology could be deployed for the purposes of experimental rigor.” As a result, the research is likely to go the same direction as the previous half decade of research on distance learning. (See the No Significant Difference Phenomenon.)

While not meeting the standards for rigor that many of us would like to see, the results of these initial studies have been encouraging. “In all instances, students performed better in the blended instance than the historical mean” – in some cases, “significantly better.” The experiment at Bryn Mawr is part of a larger project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation that is attracting involvement by 39 liberal arts colleges in exploring this model of teaching. This one definitely goes on the “worth watching” list.

If you’re interested in reading more about MOOCs on this blog, here are a few posts that you may want to take a look at: Thoughts from a MOOC PioneerThree Reasons MOOCs Should Include Digital Humanities ProjectsThe Final Last Word on MOOCsInconvenient Truths about MOOCs, and The MOOCs that (Almost) Ate UVA.

About Gene Roche

Gene Roche is director of Academic Information Services with responsibility for assisting faculty in using technology effectively in their teaching, learning and research. He also has an academic appointment as Executive Professor in the School of Education where he teaches courses in educational technology planning, emerging technology, and adult education and works with with students on independent study, dissertations and comprehensive exams. Current projects include working with the SOE’s Executive EdD program, co-chairing William and Mary’s Survey Center, and serving as chair of the Electronic Campus of Virginia. Gene completed his AB degree at Hamilton College and his MS and EdD degrees at Syracuse University–all in the snow belt of upstate New York. Before coming to William and Mary, he was the Director of Career Services at Hamilton and taught in graduate programs in Adult Education at Syracuse University and Elmira College.