Post Classifieds

Professors reflect on online courses

By Sarah Rontal
On January 28, 2014

Brandeis Profs. Marc Brettler (NEJS) and Ellen Wright (PSYC) embraced an online course format this semester, each teaching one class through Semester Online. This marked the University's first venture into online course offerings, joining a consortium of nine other colleges who are also offer courses through Semester Online.

The consortium offers a total of 21 courses. Though both Brandeis courses were intended to attract Brandeis students as well as students from consortium schools, Wright's "Psychological and Socio-Cultural Perspectives on Health" online course enrolled only Brandeis students. In total, 29 Brandeis students are enrolled in online courses, 18 enrolled in Wright's class and 11 enrolled in courses offered by consortium partners, according to Senior Vice President of Communications Ellen de Graffenreid. Brettler's course, "The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: Then and Now," only enrolled students from consortium partner schools. De Graffenreid wrote, "offering an academic strength at Brandeis to students at other top-ranked schools" is "exactly what was intended with Semester Online."

In an email to the Justice, Brettler wrote that he wishes Brandeis students were also taking this course, "but there is something exciting about teaching students from other schools, and increasing the diversity of the students I am teaching." Brettler's course "explores the meaning of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in its original ancient Near Eastern context, and how this compares to the uses made of the Bible now," according to a June 11, 2013 BrandeisNOW press release.

Both professors said they sought to teach online courses due to personal interest in the method. Brettler wrote that he liked to experiment with new educational models "especially because I think that the standard model of three hours of classroom contact is arbitrary and not always best for the students." He expects online teaching to be "used widely in all colleges," so he said that he was excited to get involved.

Wright wrote that she appreciates the online teaching method for its many resources. "Students get the opportunity to have guest lectures asynchronously, and also to watch and join in virtually with roundtables that feature experts in particular fields," she wrote. The online format includes first a "flipped class format (lecturing and some activities testing knowledge and understanding)." Beyond that, it "allows for 'live' discussion and activities that will help support the learning of the material in ways that we don't have the time or resources to do with our regular course load," Wright wrote. The live sessions allow students to divide into break out rooms for smaller discussions.
Wright's course is "designed to survey areas of psychology, psychobiology, medical anthropology and medical sociology and was created to be helpful to pre-med students around the changes in MCATs." Using the online format to her advantage, she noted that it allowed one unit of the course to feature a discussion about evaluating public service announcements around the Women, Infants and Children program between Monique Turner, an expert on persuasion and communications who has worked with [public service announcements], and Patricia McDade, a pediatric nurse practitioner.


Wright reported getting "a tremendous amount of help from faculty in all three departments" including Profs. Margie Lachman (PSYC), Nicolas Rohleder (PSYC), Anita Hannig (ANTH), Ph.D. candidate in Sociology Catherine Tan and recent Brandeis Ph.D. recipient Michael Polito.


Though Brettler showed no trepidation about the possible anonymity of online courses, Wright expressed that she still has "some concerns about how the Internet leaves us less connected rather than more connected." However, she wrote, "I think the partners in this activity work hard to make the classes really great." 


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