Teaching Online in 'Real Time'

Distinguished professor Daniel Akins gives a chemistry lecture and leads the class discussion from home.

On a recent Thursday morning, Daniel Akins, distinguished professor of chemistry at City College and the Graduate Center, is in front of his home computer — teaching a graduate school course to a dozen students scattered across the metropolitan area. After a few minutes of "housekeeping" announcements, Akins launches into an hour-and-20-minute class, going through his lecture notes displayed on the computer screen.  While participants don't see each other they talk freely, using the Web site features of www.gotomeeting.com.  Students break in with questions and chat via text messages; they can interact collectively or privately with the instructor.

 Akins, using a digital pointer, explains the "central force problem" of molecular particles. (He sometimes uses yellow highlighters, writes directly on the desktop or uses graphic features like Doodle.) Akins also records the class, including "all the give and take involved," so students can listen to the lectures more than once.

"Quantum chemistry is not easy to teach this way," admits Akins, an internationally recognized expert whose course is supported by a $5 million National Science Foundation grant. "My motivation is the realization that the future [of higher education] is online. I could see the tide of technology and I wanted to be early in the process."

Welcome to online education — The Next Generation.

Akins' class is but one example of many innovative initiatives that are taking online instruction at CUNY beyond the now well-established "asynchronous" courses, which are conducted almost entirely online, but not in "real time."

Some instructors like Matthew Gold, assistant professor of English at City Tech, are creating "digital humanities" courses that focus on a new kind of interactive learning. Gold's class, which will debut in the fall, will connect students at CUNY and four other universities who will share their observations regarding the work of iconic American poet Walt Whitman during different periods of his life.

Others, such as William Bauer, assistant professor of performing arts at the College of Staten Island, are promoting ways for faculty and students to integrate new media into traditional academic research. Bauer's local music project, for example, will use student fieldwork to document the distinctive traditions of Staten Island's music culture and distribute it through a public Web site.

Still others, such as David Harvey of the Graduate Center, have begun putting their classes up on the Internet as "open courses" that can be accessed — for free — by the public at large. Harvey's Web site offers a series of video lectures on Karl Marx's Capital, along with a range of blogs and commentaries on current economic events.

In particular, the field of digital humanities has experienced dynamic growth in recent years, says George Otte, associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Professional Studies. "Faculty are creating Web-based environments that serve as a model of something we haven't done before," Otte says. "The fans have really taken over the game."

Initially, Akins intended to mix his virtual classroom with more face-to-face sessions — as he had been doing at CUNY since 1981. As the director of the center for analysis of structures and interfaces at City College, he began using Web platforms to meet with other researchers —after they had met in person. "We got to know each other face-to-face [at the center] and got comfortable. So when we met online, it was as if in my mind's eye, the people were really there," Akins says. He expected the same pattern in his classroom. "But once the students got involved," he found, "they wanted to take it all one way — online — like entropy. Everyone is everywhere they want to be."

In coming months, more initiatives are likely to emerge through a multi-institutional effort known as Project Bamboo. Launched a year ago through a $1.4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago, Project Bamboo involves more than 90 institutions that are working in an 18-month process to map out ways of sharing technology services to advance research in the arts and humanities. "The idea is, 'What can digital technologies do to rethink scholarship in the humanities?' " says Stephen Brier, senior academic technology officer at CUNY's Graduate Center, who is heading the Bamboo working group at CUNY.

At the center of Gold's project is an open-source website that will connect classes from four colleges — City Tech, New York University, University of Mary Washington, and Rutgers University, Camden — each of which is located in an area central to Whitman's life and work.

City Tech students, for example, will investigate the Fulton Ferry Landing, which Whitman described in his famous poem, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." They will share the photos and videos they create there with students from other classes, who will similarly share work from their own locations. "Why do we have to be limited by institutional boundaries?" says Gold, whose project is funded by a $25,000 National Endowment for the Humanities start-up grant. "We're going beyond the interdisciplinary to the inter-institutional. Students are learning from the world. And we need to enable the world to come back to us. It's very much in keeping with Whitman's own democratic spirit."

At the CSI, performing arts professor Bauer has launched research projects with a similar "democratic spirit"— linking students to the various music cultures of Staten Island. Bauer began last year with a seminar, "Music in American Life," in which students did oral history fieldwork that was stored within CUNY's private academic iTunes U website.

This year, a much larger group of students is documenting the contemporary music culture of Staten Island through a project called Music SILOH (Staten Island's Local Oral History). Students are interviewing local figures, both professional and non-professional, who are influencing and contributing to specific music scenes, such as clubs, concert halls and parks. The goal is not only to assemble field research as a collective academic reservoir, but offer it on a website available to the public.

"This music is terra incognita to many people, even on Staten Island," Bauer says. "The website will give visitors a sense of the music, but it also provides a service-learning component. It gives back to the community."

Bauer acknowledges that projects like Music SILOH are not just about pedagogical innovation. "There is an urgency to what we are doing," he says. "For me to lecture to students, I've got to compete with the media production values in the outside world that are very high…We in academia need to sustain the public perception that what happens in school is relevant to how people are engaging in the world right now."

Few faculty members are engaging the world as directly as David Harvey, a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center. Harvey, who has been teaching Karl Marx's Capital for more than 40 years, now offers an open course at his website (http://davidharvey.org) which consists of 13 video lectures, also available as audio or video podcasts through iTunes. The site also includes commentaries by Harvey on issues such as the current financial crisis ("The Crisis and Consolidation of Class Power"), posts from readers and blogs.

Faculty websites like Harvey's may still be rare at CUNY, but such publicly accessible courses have been springing up at more and more universities nationwide, following the example of MIT's groundbreaking OpenCourseWare. Launched in 2002, OpenCourseWare is a free Web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content, available to the public worldwide. Faculty voluntarily provide core course materials under an open license that allows Web site users to download and modify the materials for noncommercial use. (No credit is offered.)  Through a consortium of 250 universities worldwide, there are now more than 8,000 courses, including about 1,900 MIT courses, available to the public. "It's provided significant benefits in ways we never could have imagined," says Steve Carson, the MIT program's external relations director. Not only has OpenCourseWare increased the visibility of faculty worldwide, Carson says, but it is used by half of MIT's alumni and has proved a valuable resource for students and faculty around the university.

For his part, Akins, the City College chemistry professor, foresees a day when more "open courses" can be taught for credit by CUNY in conjunction with other institutions. For example, he says, "I have a colleague in China. Why couldn't we teach a course together and offer credit at both ends?"

That kind of collaboration — when actual teaching is done collaboratively over the Web — exemplifies the power and potential of online learning, says Paul Russo, director of online programs at the School of Professional Studies, who has worked with Akins in developing his course. "We're looking for the world's experts to be involved online, to hear their voices at the same time, breaking into the lectures, contributing comments," Russo says. "When you put it up there like that, it's jazz."