Wesleyan has successfully launched a pair of online mini-courses this spring as a way for the university to further explore opportunities in online learning.
The new initiative, which started the spring semester, featured two popular undergraduate courses: Living a Good Life, taught by Stephen Angle, Jennifer D’Andrea, Steven Horst, and Tushar Irani, and Black Phoenix Rising, taught by Anthony Ryan Hatch.
Living a Good Life was a seven-week exploration of how philosophy and psychology teach us how to live lives of meaning and fulfillment. Black Phoenix Rising was a multimodal project that explores Black people’s practices of resisting death and the creative ways they transform the symbolic meanings of life, death, and resurrection in Black life and culture.
Thousands of people from over 30 countries, many of whom were older than traditional college students, signed on to participate. The courses sought to provide parents and alumni the chance to engage in a educative experience online, creating another opportunity for lifelong learning. “We created these courses with the idea that they would be as interactive as possible, that they were project focused and geared towards providing information at a college level,” said Jeffrey Goetz, associate director of the Center for Pedagogical Innovation.
“We were trying to experiment with different ways of delivering online learning and this gave us the opportunity to really test things out and see how they work,” said Anne Laskowski, chief of staff and director of strategic planning. “We are going to do a lot more in the online learning space.”
In addition, the University is exploring how to increase access and affordability. “Our application numbers go up every year and we can only accept a small portion of those students. We are seeking a way to provide more people access to the high-quality education we provide. That’s one of our driving points as we further explore online learning,” Laskowski said.
Goetz said the kernel of idea for the mini-courses was placed with the “Windows into Wesleyan” program, a series of online lectures created for alumni. “We then wanted to expand the idea into something that’s more like a full-fledged course, really a continued engagement for students over a period of time,” Goetz said.
There is a challenge to transposing a course ordinarily taught in person to one that works online. Research indicates that straight lectures alone won’t generate engagement, so Goetz’s goal was to creating courses that offer students moments of connection to the material through projects or dialogue with the professor.
Each of the spring courses used a distinctive pedagogical approach. Living a Good Life offered students the opportunity to do activities and self-assessment reflections in a more linear sequence, guided by their professors. Black Phoenix Rising allowed students to make decisions on the materials they would engage with in a given week.
Prior to the pandemic, Hatch, associate professor of science in society, had never taught in a virtual space. He worked closely with Goetz to shape the online version of the course. “This was very much an experiment in my mind,” Hatch said. “It showed me one area where we need to develop, including broadcasting, public engagement, and translating to audiences outside the University. One of the things that makes teaching in this space interesting is the ability to translate. Having to produce Black Phoenix Rising for anyone that came upon it forced me to think about the language I used, to make sure that it was clear and accessible.”
Jennifer D’Andrea, director of counseling and psychological services, played a key role in Living a Good Life, talking about some key principles of positive psychology and offering strategies for participants to try on their own. Both she and Hatch heard positive reactions from students who took the courses.
“People love learning. We don’t have to be full-time students to be engaged in a learning process and environment. I think the concept of an online mini-course is perfect for people who are busy with careers and family, but who nonetheless are excited about opportunities to learn something new in an online community,” D’Andrea said.