Illustration by Shout

Busy students find valuable study time on the go without lugging around huge textbooks. Enthralled alumnae watch dance performances celebrating the College’s history. The world learns about an ancient society in a new way. All of these are projects of Barnard’s Committee on Online and On-Campus Learning (COOL).

The COOL taskforce was formed in the fall of 2012: President Debora Spar asked faculty and key administrators to explore ways that the College could best use digital technology in the classroom. After a year of research, COOL’s members gathered together a website of innovative projects already happening on campus and requested faculty proposals encouraging professors to focus on “projects that promoted Barnard’s academic distinctiveness, place-based education, feminism, social justice, and student-faculty interaction in a liberal arts context.”

“The current environment makes the liberal arts all the more important because we focus on modes of inquiry, ways of learning,” says COOL chair Janet Jakobsen, director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women and Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. “What we hope that gives our students in a rapidly changing environment is the ability to understand the various methods by which they can learn and adapt as they go through their lives.”

Among the examples of innovation already happening at Barnard is Gene Tutor, an app designed by Professor Brian Morton, chair of the biological sciences department, as a study aid for students taking a genetics course. Although designed for his course, Molecular and Mendelian Genetics, Morton points out that the app can be used for a broader-based study of genetics. “The material is covered in a browser environment—including a number of external science education links—so they can easily study any topic from the course with the advantages of web-based text,” says Morton. “At the same time, there are a lot of videos embedded so that many of the topics can be learned in different ways.” He adds, “There are a lot of questions for each topic—most with solutions provided—so they can get practice with problem solving and also use this to quiz themselves while studying.”

Several of Morton’s students have used the app while on the subway, a practical way to maximize study opportunities that eases stress and improves learning. “Science textbooks are often heavy and hard to carry around,” says Hye-Jin Yun ’15. “The portability and interactiveness of the Gene Tutor app have enhanced my learning experience.

“With videos and interactive practice questions, the app helped me to better understand the material,” she adds. “For difficult science subjects, I would like to see more interactive apps that supplement the class. However, I very much enjoy and learn best when I’m in a classroom setting, so I would not like to see digitization (i.e. online classes or videos of professors teaching the material) replace the class.”

But digitization will not replace the classroom anytime soon. The Massive Online and Open Courses, otherwise known as MOOCs, have been a subject of major discussion in recent years, with experts weighing both the benefits and downsides of making popular courses widely available online. Perry Mehrling, professor of economics, has taught the course Economics of Money and Banking for the past 15 years. In the fall of 2012, the Institute for New Economic Thinking filmed the course, and in 2013 it was offered as both a MOOC on the online platform Coursera and as an on-campus course with a so-called flipped classroom. A flipped classroom does away with a more traditional model of learning in which the professor lectures on material students have already read and students do homework outside of class. In a flipped classroom, professors have taped their lectures (which is what Mehrling did) and students watch the lecture before class so that classroom time is spent in a more interactive manner.

The MOOC participants, who numbered more than 1,000, viewed the online videos and took multiple-choice quizzes. They had the opportunity to participate in online discussion boards with Mehrling occasionally chiming in, much to their pleasant surprise. The on-campus version of this course, one of the first flipped classes taught at Columbia University, was a reenvisioning of the course and the teaching method.

“Students can speed up the videos or slow them down or watch them twice,” notes Mehrling. “They can also read the lecture notes in addition or instead. So there is much wider potential to support different learning styles. They can also go back to see a lecture again when they realize (after the midterm) that they misunderstood something important.

“Students are definitely learning more, and I think they are having more fun too,” he adds. “The fact that the lectures are already taped allows me to treat course time as time for interaction, which is stimulating for me as well as the students. The fact that the course works fine without a classroom at all has opened up room for experimentation in the classroom, since I know that the class will work even if the experiment fails. I can try new stuff and learn.”

Several divisions of the Barnard Library and Academic Information Services (BLAIS) have been integrally involved in making some of the COOL projects possible, including 125 Barnard Dances, unveiled as part of Founders Day festivities. Students in the dance department’s site-specific composition course created site-specific dances that people could view using a free augmented-reality app.

“I engaged with students at each stage of the research process, with a particular focus on topic formation,” says Alexis Seeley, associate dean for teaching, research, and technology.

“Our students started by exploring Barnard’s past in collaboration with the Barnard Archives, but then closely coordinated with the Instructional Media and Technology Services (IMATS) department to help realize their creative vision,” recalls Adjunct Professor Adam H. Weinert. “We were thrilled with the audience participation on Founders Day itself, and expect the app to continue to support creative work in dance and, hopefully, the architecture and design department as well.”

For her COOL project, Professor Kristina Milnor, associate professor of classics, created a digital map of the Roman city of Pompeii, buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the year 79 B.C.E. In part because excavations have lasted more than two centuries, the materials, including 10 thousand written texts on Pompeian walls, have been quite difficult to see and understand systematically.

“The graffiti evidence survives mostly as lists and narrative descriptions in the excavation reports published unevenly and in multiple different places over the past two and a half centuries,” says Milnor. “What I hope to show my students is actually pretty basic: where these ancient writings come from. In addition to seeing where an individual inscription was found, I also want to show, and can show with digital maps, the relationship between texts—what other writings were found in and around a particular graffito, whether a specific part of the city was rich in graffiti or relatively poor, whether most of the graffiti in that section was found inside houses or in the street, etc. This will lead, I hope, to their better understanding of how graffiti functioned as a really important, but really underappreciated, part of the ancient urban environment.”

The COOL website is public, and alumnae can check out the various projects being developed at barnard.edu/cool. Mehrling’s MOOC is open to the public and alumnae can sign up through Coursera.

However, committee members stress that digital technologies are not meant to overtake the classroom, but rather to enhance it. A hybrid approach is envisioned that uses the best of digital technology, such as connecting with scholars and classrooms at diverse locations. For example, in July President Spar announced that Barnard received an $800,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that will support a new academic initiative called Barnard Teaches: Real Place + Digital Access, which will allow Barnard faculty to work hands-on with curators, archivists, and collection specialists at New York City cultural and scientific institutions to co-develop courses.

“I would love to see Barnard at the forefront of online learning options,” says Merav Stein ’15. “As a visual learner myself, sometimes all it takes is one well- made animation to help clarify a complex concept that I still find confusing after reading the book.

“However, I hope the advancements in digital study resources don’t replace actual study groups,” she continues. “I know that I perform best when I study with friends, when I am truly tested on my understanding of the material because I have to explain concepts.”