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On the higher-ed beat: For these colleges, online is still new

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS
  • Star Tribune
  • December 5, 2012 - 7:22 PM

Colleges known for face-to-face instruction are dipping a toe online.

This summer, professors from Macalester and St. Olaf plan to offer an online calculus class for credit. For Macalester, it's a first.

Unlike the massive, free online courses making the news, this will be "extremely personalized," promised Chad Topaz, associate professor at Macalester in St. Paul. He is developing the course with Kristina Garrett, an associate professor at St. Olaf, in Northfield.

The pair will video chat one-on-one with students weekly. Enrollment will be capped at about 20.

Topaz, an applied mathematician, has "flipped" his other classes, putting lectures online and using class time for discussion and working through problems.

"I have always been someone who believed that the judicious use of technology has the opportunity to be transformative," he said. "I really do mean the word 'judicious.'"

But are students who pick residential, liberal arts colleges like Macalester and St. Olaf clamoring for online courses?

"I guess we'll find out," Topaz said. Many Macalester students pack their schedules tightly, so that they can double up on majors or study abroad for a semester or longer. "So the flexibility might be highly appealing to them."

The course is an experiment of sorts, sponsored by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, and will be open to students at its 14 member colleges. The professors will report back to the larger group with results.

"Certainly a liberal arts education tends to focus on very intensive, high-quality interactions between students and faculty members," said Marci Sortor, provost and dean of the College at St. Olaf. "How that gets manifested in an online setting is an interesting challenge, I think."

Topaz added: "We're not just going online to go online. We're going online to try to see how it can best serve our students and provide learning at a Macalester-like institution."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna

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