New Mini-Courses Explore Online Learning

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Wesleyan successfully launched a pair of online mini-courses this spring so the university can further explore online learning opportunities.

The new initiative, which began the spring semester, included two popular undergraduate courses: Living a Good Life, taught by Stephen Angle, Jennifer D’Andrea, Steven Horst and Tushar Irani, and Black Phoenix Rising, taught by Anthony Ryan Hatch.

Living a Good Life was a seven-week exploration of how philosophy and psychology teach us how to live meaningful and fulfilling lives. Black Phoenix Rising was a multi-modal project that explores Black people’s practices of resisting death and the creative ways they transform symbolic meanings of life, death, and resurrection in Black life and culture.

Thousands of people from more than 30 countries, many older than traditional university students, signed up to participate. The courses aimed to provide parents and alumni with the opportunity to engage in an online educational experience, creating another lifelong learning opportunity. “We created these courses with the idea that they would be as interactive as possible, project-based, and geared toward providing college-level information,” said Jeffrey Goetz, associate director of the Center for pedagogical innovation.

“We were trying to experiment with different ways of delivering e-learning and it gave us the opportunity to really test things out and see how they work,” said Anne Laskowski, chief of staff and director of strategic planning. . “We’re going to do a lot more in the e-learning space.”

Additionally, the University is exploring how to increase access and affordability. “Our requests increase every year and we can only accept a small part of these students. We are looking for a way to enable more people to access the high quality education we offer. This is one of our driving forces as we further explore online learning,” Laskowski said.

Goetz said the core of the mini-courses idea was placed with the “Windows into Wesleyan” program, an online lecture series created for alumni. “We then wanted to expand the idea into something more like a full-fledged course, really an ongoing engagement for students over a period of time,” Goetz said.

It is difficult to transpose a course usually taught in person to a course that works online. Research indicates that lectures alone do not generate engagement. Goetz’s goal, therefore, was to create courses that provide students with moments of connection to the subject through projects or dialogue with the professor.

Each of the spring courses used a particular pedagogical approach. Living a Good Life offered students the opportunity to do self-assessment activities and reflections in a more linear sequence, guided by their teachers. Black Phoenix Rising allowed students to make decisions about the materials they would engage with in any given week.

Before the pandemic, Hatch, an associate professor of science in society, had never taught in a virtual space. He worked closely with Goetz to shape the online version of the course. “It was definitely an experience in my mind,” Hatch said. “It showed me an area where we need to grow, including outreach, audience engagement and translation to audiences outside of the University. One of the things that makes teaching in this space interesting is the ability to translate. Having to produce Black Phoenix Rising for anyone who discovered it forced me to think about the language I was using, to make sure it was clear and accessible.

Jennifer D’Andrea, Director of Counseling and Psychology Services, played a key role in Living a Good Life, talking about some key principles of positive psychology and offering strategies participants can try for themselves. She and Hatch have heard positive feedback from students who have taken the classes.

“People like to learn. We don’t have to be full-time students to be engaged in a learning process and environment. I think the concept of an online mini-course is perfect for people who are busy with careers and families, but are nonetheless excited about the opportunities to learn something new in an online community,” D’Andrea said.

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