Selecting ExCollege Courses

Over 100 proposals were submitted by candidates eager for the opportunity to teach in the fall semester. In just a few short days, the ExCollege Board will be meeting to determine which 22 of those courses will be offered to Tufts students. But how exactly do we go from the 100+ proposals down to 22?

The Life of a Proposal

 

 

The ExCollege and the Future of Higher Education

Today we began our 50th anniversary celebration weekend with a conference on the future of higher education. One of the conference highlights will be reflecting on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and how their presence will impact the traditional university. During the Fall 2013 semester, the ExCollege created a Quidnunc that allowed students to take MOOCs and discuss the experience with a group of peers. Ken Garden, ExCollege Board Chair and faculty member in the Religion Department, participated in the Quidnunc and shared his thoughts with us on MOOCs.

Written by Ken Garden, Religion Department and ExCollege Board Chair

2013-2014 has been a particularly eventful year at the ExCollege. In addition to our usual offerings of innovative and timely classes taught by practitioners, academic instructors, and students, we are celebrating a half century of the ExCollege at Tufts. The event will be marked by two exhibits on the ExCollege’s history, a gala held on April 12th, and a conference on the future of higher education on April 11th. The longevity of the ExCollege and the outpouring of support for its 50th anniversary speak to the vital role it plays in the life of the Tufts community.

Higher education is in the midst of one of its biggest experiments in years in the form of the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. The New York Times dubbed 2012 the “Year of the MOOC.” That year, Google’s Sebastian Thrun started a new company, Udacity, to offer free online university courses to as many students as wanted to enroll in them. He was so confident of the promise of MOOCs that he predicted that within 50 years there would remain only a small handful of higher education providers, the rest of the world’s universities having been swept away by this new “disruptive technology.” Stanford sponsored a new MOOC consortium, Coursera, and Harvard and MIT followed suit, launching EdX later that year.

It seemed fitting that the ExCollege should join the conversation on the MOOC. A group of Tufts students and I, including our own Board member Kumar Ramanathan (A’15), set out to look into this experiment ourselves, each of us enrolling in a MOOC. Between us, we enrolled in courses on topics ranging from contraception, to the hero in ancient Greek literature, to irony in the writing of Søren Kierkegaard, to the history of architecture, to the letters of Paul.

Our experiences in many cases echoed what we had read about the MOOC experience. Having paid nothing for the course and with no non-virtual connection to the instructor or other students, several of us stopped taking courses that didn’t interest us and enrolled in other ones. Online multiple choice quizzes, discussion boards, and peer-graded essays were a pale substitute for classroom interaction and instructor-graded assignments. While we all saw a real threat to companies that sell university courses on CD or DVD, we saw no mortal threat to the traditional brick and mortar university. Sebastian Thrun came to a similar conclusion at the end of 2013, declaring that his own Udacity had a “lousy product.”

Still, we also saw ongoing experimentation with the MOOC and all of us felt we learned from the courses we took. It will be interesting to see what it evolves into and what kind of role online courses, massive or otherwise, come to play in higher education.

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TuftsNow also reflected on the ExCollege’s exploration into the world of MOOCs with an article written by Gail Bambrick.

Neuroscience and the Movies

Last fall, Emily Hueske and Steve Ramirez submitted a course proposal aiming to fuse together the worlds of neuroscience and the big screen. After a rigorous course selection process, their proposal was selected to be taught this spring! They’ve had an incredibly successful semester thus far, and they took a few minutes to reflect on the early weeks of their truly experimental classroom.

“Why is it that Jason Bourne can remember how to maneuver a car at 120mph, how to disarm an assailant in a second, and how to land properly after jumping off a building, yet he can’t remember his own name or past?”

 This is one of the first questions we were asked while introducing our experimental course on neuroscience and Hollywood. The answer lies in a remarkable property of the brain’s multiple memory systems, but the first week was just a teaser. To learn the full answer, we asked our students to join us on a semester-long tour of the brain’s structures and functions, but viewed through the lens of Hollywood. We were beyond thrilled at the turnout on day one and immediately realized a wonderful nugget of truth regarding the multi-disciplinary culture at Tufts: only at the ExCollege could such a symbiotic relationship between movies and neuroscience exist and be taught.

When you think about it, Hollywood has infused some of the most influential scenes in cinema with neuroscientific backdrops: Neo uploading Kung Fu to his mind; Cobb incepting an idea within a dream; Tyler Durden’s true alter-ego; Jason Bourne’s high-octane amnesia. A common thread that ties these movies together is the idea that the brain is the mind’s physical substrate through which ideas, memories, and personalities can be artificially enhanced or distorted. Each week, we use neuroscience as an arc to weave in and out of what Hollywood often gets right or wrong. Every class is sprinkled with movies clips, culturally relevant and science-tinged scenarios that are to be addressed in groups, and, of course, adrenaline-friendly discussions.

The level of engagement each student brought to the table blew us both away. For example, early on we voyaged into the world of memory manipulation and Inception. After teaching our students the nitty-gritty science behind distorting real memories, we began our Socratic style dialogue.

Nearly every student had a unique, scientifically sound interpretation of Inception that neither of us had originally considered. This, simply put, was as delightful as it was enriching. It was a very real two-way street of insight between the students and us. Everyone was both student and teacher at a given point throughout the class. Indeed, having Hollywood and neuroscience both act as pedagogical tools to teach the Tufts community was originally experimental, but the results in this first pass have been an inspiring testament to the ExCollege’s mission.

In our class, we ask our students to digest the following: neuroscience currently is reaching a point where ideas are rapidly being plucked from the tree of science fiction and grounded in experimental reality. We believe that with our team-oriented approach to teaching and learning, suddenly Jason Bourne’s amnesia and its neural underpinnings are—like the mind—not just orderly, but intelligible.