Remote Learning at a Residential College

by Steve Taylor

Since shortly after the web was developed, colleges and universities have used it for conducting distance education programs. Leaders in the practice included public institutions, whose mission included serving a wide geographical area of non-traditional students; large universities, who were challenged to provide alternatives to courses taught in huge lecture halls; and professional schools and trade schools, whose focus was on procedural skills. The emergence of MOOCs in 2012 brought more attention to the practice. It has not been obvious, however, how distance learning technologies could benefit small, private, residential, liberal arts colleges like Vassar. Many have doubted— reasonably so—  that an online course could offer a better learning experience than a face-to-face course with a small student/faculty ratio. At Vassar this summer, we identified a use for distance learning technologies that borders on the ironic: a residential college connecting with its students when they’re not in residence; an institution known for small class sizes interacting with a student cohort of 700. We used Moodle to enhance our summer common reading program for incoming students.

Vassar College has administered a common reading program for first-year students every summer since 2006. The Dean of Freshmen’s office mails a copy of the chosen book (this year’s was Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoire, Fun Home), along with other orientation materials, to each admitted student’s home address. The students are instructed to read the book, but there have been no other requirements. For the summer of 2014, Dean Susan Zlotnick wanted to enhance the common reading experience with some online interaction, using Moodle. Over the course of several weeks, ACS produced three short videos, each with a different faculty member speaking about an aspect of the book, and inviting students to respond to one of several discussion prompts. Student participation was high, for an activity that had no penalty for non-participation. 427 of the 670 students (64%) posted responses, most of them substantial in length.

The goals of the common reading program are to give incoming students a preview of what classes at Vassar might be like, and to give them an opportunity to have a common intellectual experience with each other before courses begin. By all accounts, that was successful. This experience raises an interesting question: what other aspects of Vassar life might be enhanced by having an online space for shared information and social interaction?


Google Plus for Educators

by Steve Taylor

Google has “semi-released” a new service that many people consider to be a direct competitor to Facebook: “Google +”. Like Facebook– or Twitter, for that matter– it’s a social network, meaning that you identify other people that you’re interested in and you share information with them.

Nearly every college or university student uses Facebook, so it was natural for faculty and administrators to start exploring how they might take advantage of that to improve communications with students. But many found the idea of an instructor friending a student to be at best a little awkward and at worst, creepy. Part of the problem is that, in Facebook, a “friend” relationship is bi-directional: in order for a student to see her teacher’s postings, the teacher has to see hers. (That problem can be addressed with Groups and restriction settings, but creating those takes more effort than most people want to make.)


Google+ takes a somewhat different approach: relationships can be one-directional, more like following someone in Twitter. You create “circles” of acquaintances of different types: current friends, high school friends, family members,  co-workers, etc. and include different people in one or more of them. They’ll be notified that you added them to a circle, but they won’t know the name of that circle and they won’t be obligated to add you to any of theirs.

As an example, an instructor could create a circle that includes all of the students in English 101. He can share websites or comments with that circle, so that they appear in those students’ news feeds. But he doesn’t have to share his comments or pictures from last night’s barbecue with that circle. And if none of them add the instructor to any of their circles, he’ll never see anything they post. Of course, if they also make “English 101” circles with the same members, they can share things that are appropriate for that group.

Students could also create temporary circles for chatting and sharing materials among a project group. (As could faculty researchers.)


“Hangout” is the Google+ name for a video chat. At the moment, this is probably the slickest way for a group of people to do video chatting. It’s very easy to do, can accommodate up to ten people at a time, and it’s free. Though you can schedule hangouts, Google thinks of them as being spontaneous– like if you’re hanging out in the college center and friends bump into you and hang out for a while. But an instructor could use the hangout feature for online office hours or for holding study sessions. Or for collaborating with research colleagues. Or for interviews.

There are other features too, but circles and hangouts seem to be the most intriguing ones for educational use. As of this writing, Google+ is in pre-release, which is to say that it’s available to people who know someone who knows someone, but it should be generally available soon.