Same Time, Many Locations: Online Education Goes Back to Its Origins (CHE)

JUNE 14, 2016

One of the hottest tickets at the University of Texas at Austin these days is a seat in a face-to-face classroom for an introductory psychology course.

Most of the 1,500 undergraduates who take the course each semester watch the lectures online, but 24 are chosen to attend in person in the studio classroom on the two days a week that it meets.

The course’s professors, James W. Pennebaker and Samuel D. Gosling, work to make it entertaining. Mr. Pennebaker says they present “like it’s a TV show” — think The Daily Show, fake remote newscasts and all.

The professors keep students involved with humor and high production values along with daily in-class quizzes, small-group exercises that connect students with one another online, and, often, writing assignments based on something that came up during the class. “We’re trying to really push engagement,” says Mr. Pennebaker.

Of course, that engagement can be a challenge when most students are watching via laptop or smartphone from dormitory rooms, the swimming-pool deck, and other locations.

Texas has been experimenting with this kind of large-scale, real-time distance education for introductory courses since 2012. Now the university is making a major commitment to synchronous online courses — those in which students must watch remotely at a set time — with plans to eventually use them for all major introductory courses. By this fall, nearly one out of five undergraduates on the campus are expected to be taking at least one synchronous online course.

To longtime observers of higher education, the university’s moves might seem like a flashback to the pre-broadband era of the mid-1990s, when colleges relied on synchronous offerings in their first online courses because the technology didn’t allow for much else. Since then most of the excitement, support, and growth in distance education has come as a result of advances in courses that students can watch at their own pace: asynchronous online education.

The flexibility of the asynchronous approach has attracted millions of working adults. It has also opened up opportunities for professors, instructional designers, and education companies to incorporate more-creative technology-based teaching materials into their courses and, more recently, into their MOOCs. For many institutions, the asynchronous factor was also what helped make the online educational offerings profitable.

But today, decades after colleges began embracing courses that students could take at whatever schedule best fit them, the pendulum seems to have begun swinging back toward distance education in real time.

“Synchronous is the new black,” says Jeremi Suri, a professor of history who teaches one of the large-scale classes from a studio on the Austin campus, a 300-person course on American history from President Lincoln to President Obama. “I do think it’s the future.”

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About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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