Notre Dame offers virtual classes

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Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Alumni who yearn for the kind of intellectual stimulation they received during their days on campus have reason to celebrate. Notre Dame has joined a growing educational endeavor that holds significant potential benefits for alumni, faculty and students and self-guided learners the world over.

Notre Dame’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative, launched during the fall, offers visitors to the University’s website free access to complete course materials for eight undergraduate-level classes. The materials include professors’ biographies, reading lists and lecture notes. Several courses offer writing assignments and quiz study guides. All a user would need to profit from an OCW class is access to the Internet, the ability to read English, some free time and a little intellectual discipline.

If you just paid a tuition bill or an installment on your college loan, this may not seem like good news. But the idea behind open courseware isn’t to replace the classroom experience or pass out degrees to casual Internet surfers. Users can’t show up for faculty office hours, and whatever good they may get out of writing a paper while working through Professor Gary Anderson’s “Foundations of Theology” course, it won’t include feedback, a grade or credit hours.

Rather, the intention is to share information with motivated minds by combining the web’s power to facilitate self-teaching with the kind of authoritative knowledge produced and presented by serious scholars.

One month in, project director Terri Bays says the OCW site has already received a quarter of a million hits as well as some encouraging user feedback. “We thought we would creep into the field, and we’re surprised that we’ve gotten this warm a response,” she says.

Dennis Jacobs, ND associate provost, says the project could make course goals and content clearer to students prior to enrollment as they browse course pages and mull over their options. Parents might take a closer look at what their children are studying. Faculty members stand to gain new insights into how their colleagues approach their work in the classroom. Instructors also may have readier access to each other’s work during promotional reviews and nominations for teaching awards.

“I think it would raise the level at which we teach across the University when we begin to understand what students are doing and experiencing in other courses,” says Jacobs, a chemist who has won national honors for his classroom labors. Also, he says, OCW “would challenge me to teach differently as I learn about all the innovative things my colleagues are teaching.”

Alexander Hahn, director of the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning, which hosts Notre Dame’s OCW project, envisions OCW materials helping teachers improve their classes at mission schools run by the Congregation of Holy Cross in such places as Uganda, Haiti and Bangladesh.

Open courseware first appeared five years ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The initial response from the academic community was equal parts enthusiastic and skeptical. Proponents saw opportunities for faculty to serve colleagues, students and the public by opening a virtual window into their classrooms. Critics raised concerns about intellectual property rights, strains on professors’ time and whether the uses of the materials would justify the time and money invested in their creation.

MIT pressed ahead, declaring its goal of providing materials for each of the more than 1,000 lecture courses in its catalog. It drew other universities to its banner and spun off the OCW Consortium, an international network of colleges and universities from more than a dozen countries. U.S. members include Johns Hopkins, Tufts and Utah State, with contributions forthcoming from Harvard Law School, Michigan State and the University of Michigan.

Anne Margulies, the executive director of MIT’s program, praised the quality of Notre Dame’s site in remarks delivered by digital video feed to participants in the Sept. 20 site-launch conference. “You’re taking a leadership position in the global open-sharing movement,” she said. “Based on our experience here at MIT, I can assure you that the course I had a chance to look at will be really well received and of broad interest and impact all around the world.”

While MIT’s vision for its participation is comprehensive, other universities are starting small by featuring classes closely tied to their core missions. “In Notre Dame’s case, the topical focus is on the human condition, broadly conceived and interpreted, from the essential nature of human beings, to the way they interact with each other, to their relationship with their God,” says Hahn.

Working with a two-year $233,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation, Bays says the immediate goal is to have 30 courses available by the end of the 2007–08 academic year. Eventually, some courses will offer streaming videos of actual class lectures.

ND OpenCourseWare’s Inaugural Eight

The Notre Dame classes taught by the professors listed here are available at the OpenCourseWare site, ocw.nd.edu/.

Africana Studies—“Faith and the African American Experience,” Hugh Page; Arabic and Middle East Studies—“Islamic Societies of the Middle East and North Africa: Religion, History and Culture,” Asma Afsaruddin; *Architecture*—“Nature and the Built Environment,” Norman Crowe; *History*—“African American History II,” Richard Pierce; Peace Studies—“Terrorism, Peace and Other Inconsistencies,” George Lopez; *Philosophy*—“Introduction to Philosophy,” Paul Weithman; “Introduction to Philosophy,” William Ramsey; *Theology*—“Foundations of Theology: Biblical and Historical,” Gary Anderson.

Coming soon:

*Anthropology*—“Primate Behavior,” Agustin Fuentes; “Human Osteology,” Susan Sheridan; Peace Studies—“Introduction to Peace Studies,” George Lopez; Political Science—“Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley” (honors seminar), Eileen Botting; *Theology*—“Jews and Christians throughout History,” Michael Signer.

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