Boston College: Balancing Technology and Tradition

The Internet has changed everything, including education at some of the world’s oldest and most traditional institutions. Here at Boston College, we honor our academic traditions and zealously preserve the standards that have consistently ranked us among the nation’s top universities. At the same time, eLearning has touched everyone on our campus, and we’ve managed to balance technology and tradition.

One of our Jesuit professors, for example, is having the time of his academic life with eLearning—at 74 years old. The professor asks his philosophy students to discuss topics over the Internet before and after regular classroom sessions. Students can post their arguments anonymously. Only the professor knows who said what and the peers know only that a classmate has posted a comment.

When students come to class, the professor opens his laptop and displays the most compelling comments on the big screen at the front of the classroom. Intellectual fireworks ensue. After decades of mild frustration trying to draw reticent students out of their shells, he is thrilled by how the “safety” of the Internet has increased the volume and quality of discourse in his class.

In another great example of the Internet on our campus, a professor of German music has started posting classical pieces online for his students. For years, he had taken great pains to assemble a CD-ROM of his selections and ask students to check it out of the library for homework. Students often arrived at the library only to learn that one of their classmates had already checked out the CD, forcing them to make multiple trips and sometimes miss out entirely. Now, at any time of the day or night, students simply go online and visit the home page for the music course. The home page, like all of our other eLearning content and tools, is powered by a leading course management system. Students simply point, click and stream the music into their dorms, homes—wherever they carry their laptop. Students love it, and so d'es the professor.

In the Graduate School of Social Work, every course has Internet content, whether it’s an article, study, movie clip, handout, quiz, chat room, newsgroup or simply a syllabus. Betty Cohen, reference librarian is one of two people who deserve special credit for pioneering eLearning at Boston College. The other is our very talented technologist Michael Connolly, associate professor and chairman of the department of Slavic and eastern languages. He first introduced eLearning to Boston College in the fall of 2000 and teaches all manner of languages online, everything from Swedish to Swahili, even Christian Latin.

The faculty chose WebCT for its flexible course management system that offers content, quizzes, chat, clips, newsgroups, polls, whiteboards, Web links and more with minimal training. One of the more interesting features is selective content release, which lets a teacher release lessons, quizzes or other content when certain conditions are met—a time or date, for example, or the successful completion of a preceding unit. Despite its flexibility, Boston College’s content management system is easy enough for a novice and powerful enough for an eLearning expert.

Preserving the Boston College ‘brand’
With the pervasiveness of online courses around the world, it’s clear that eLearning has become the norm in higher ed. While many top-tier schools worry that eLearning could erode their brands, which are steeped in centuries of classical academic tradition, eLearning has really gained traction at Boston College. We don’t, however, view eLearning as “the next big thing” or a marketing tool for admissions. We weigh eLearning only in the context of its power to improve education. Education per se is the only thing that matters.

Some schools, on the other hand, mandate eLearning as required online components for every course. We prefer to let eLearning develop organically, driven by the faculty. This approach has worked well; 20 percent of all Boston College courses now have a content management site. eBook publishers are flooding academia with digitized online content for a wide range of courses. Boston College has a very robust digital library, and students thrive on that digitized content.

We cultivate our organic eLearning growth through a “checks and balances” committee structure that serves us very well. Our University Council on Teaching comprises 10 respected faculty members who set strategy on how eLearning will play out on campus.

We’ve wired all of the college’s classrooms with state-of-the-art infrastructure. Faculty members are supplied with powerful PCs and laptops. Our student base is technologically savvy and often comes to us with eLearning experience gained in high school. They’re comfortable being online. In fact, they virtually grew up online.

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