Onboard with Online
MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, are causing a stir in academia. But while the opportunity for reaching thousands of students who would otherwise not have access to higher learning appeals to faculty at a Jesuit university whose dedication to social justice and global engagement are cornerstones of its very existence, the nuts and bolts of how to enter this arena while still providing personalized education has been a challenge for the engineering professors at SCU.
"Offering a class fully online goes against the grain of what we do here; for me, a hybrid works," said Aleksandar Zecevic, professor of electrical engineering and associate dean of graduate engineering programs. Last winter, Zecevic offered a hybrid version of ENGR 343, Science, Religion, and the Limits of Knowledge, at St. Xavier’s College in Kolkata, India, recording seven of the ten lectures for online viewing and presenting three in person. "For this course, I start with the science that we all agree on. Beginning from a place of shared understanding opens the topic of religion and allows people to question their own common sense." Zecevic finds these ground-laying lectures are easily handled online, but when the subject matter turns to more controversial topics such as miracles and pluralism, he likes to be there, in person, to enable a fully interactive dialog. "It makes a huge difference that I am there; it is much more effective than a purely online class. Without exception, students noted in their evaluations that the interactive piece was the most valuable component of the course. That’s what is unique about how we teach here at SCU—the personalized interaction with the students."
Seeing it work so well in Kolkata has opened doors, and SCU recently signed a three-year Memorandum of Understanding with St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, India. Zecevic will be offering the course concurrently for students in Kolkata and Mumbai next winter, and this fall he is teaching a joint class for students in Santa Clara and Uruguay, presenting in-person lectures at each location.
South America was also the destination for Department of Engineering Management and Leadership chair Frank Barone last summer. Universidad Católica del Uruguay is starting an Engineering Management Program of their own, and they asked Barone to offer EMGT 380, Introduction to Systems Engineering, to their students. He traveled to Montevideo, presenting the first two lectures there before moving to a live online format.
"Though I wasn't teaching the course at SCU at the time, I wanted to do my class live," Barone said. "It was nice to meet the students in person first before giving the rest of the lectures remotely. We got to know each other, which enabled better interaction throughout the course." Homework assignments and exams were handled via email; office hours were a little more flexible, to say the least. "I was available twenty-four hours a day to answer questions," said Barone with a smile.
"The students were excellent," he added. "They understood the concepts and did a great job on their group projects. I was happy to learn that everything we could do at SCU could be done with a class online. It's valuable for universities to be able to add to their curriculum in this way, and it enhances the experience for students—they get a different point of view from those in other countries."
Also commenting on the benefits of taking Santa Clara engineering on the road, Zecevic said, "It's not about making more money; it's about taking the things we do that are interesting and different and bringing them to different parts of the world. This opens doors and brings great visibility to Santa Clara. And having our students interact with peers from some of the top schools worldwide is a tremendous experience. Santa Clara engineering is being taught on three continents now, I'd love to see us in Europe one day."