Yale Center for Teaching and Learning


As is often cited, the University’s three core missions are the creation, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge. In the past dozen years, Yale has undertaken important online education projects that have disseminated the best of Yale teaching beyond our classrooms in New Haven.

A. AllLearn

Yale embarked on a serious distance learning initiative with Stanford and Oxford to create, in 2001, the Alliance for Lifelong Learning (AllLearn). The goal was for the faculty at those three universities to create online, noncredit courses of high quality initially for their combined alumni. Professor Diana Kleiner, then Deputy Provost, was the Yale faculty Director for AllLearn. Tuition (ranging from $195 for alumni and $250 for the general public) was charged for each course, with additional materials fees of up to $49.95. Over time, the tuition was raised and varied by course, with intensive creative writing courses costing above $800.

Students worldwide took the courses synchronously with the online instructor—a Teaching Fellow (TF) who was an expert in the field and often selected by the faculty sponsor. This was a highly interactive course model with frequent asynchronous threaded discussions overseen by the TF and weekly scheduled chat room conversations, which were often joined by the faculty member.

AllLearn’s financial model assumed that alumni and others would pay high fees for continuing education that offered no credit, certificate, or other badge; this proved not to be the case. AllLearn closed in 2006, but it yielded important lessons: Yale learned (1) the hard work required for faculty to create high-quality online materials, (2) the technical support needed to produce polished courses, and (3) the extent of marketing needed to distribute the materials. The AllLearn courses had the advantages of allowing the faculty to experiment with significant social interaction, a short lecture format, and assessment of work. All of these are features of the recently introduced, massive open online courses (MOOCs).

B. Open Yale Courses

Also under the leadership of Professor Kleiner, Yale launched Open Yale Courses (OYC) in December 2007 for the purpose of sharing outstanding Yale College courses for free for use by the general public or by teachers in their own classrooms. The initiative provides free and open access to forty-two courses taught by Yale faculty, with the courses spanning the full range of liberal arts disciplines.

For those unfamiliar with OYC, a quick tour of the website (http://oyc.yale.edu) reveals the quality of the classroom lecture videos and the unusual feature of providing both problem sets and solutions. Unlike AllLearn and the MOOC projects in the news lately (e.g., Coursera and edX), OYC did not provide opportunities for students to engage with one another in chat rooms or through social media.

Having learned the hard way from AllLearn about the limitations of exclusive distribution channels, the University worked to achieve the widest distribution possible. For example, the OYC lectures were made available on a special Yale website and also on two commercial platforms: YouTube and iTunes U.

The reach of several of the courses has been amplified by translation: for example, Professor Shelly Kagan’s OYC has been subtitled in Mandarin, and the popularity of the course in China has made him “among the most recognizable American professors in China,” according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (October 5, 2012, p. B16).

OYC are posted online under a Creative Commons license, which allows anyone to use the materials for noncommercial purposes. A number of universities around the world have already used—with Yale’s encouragement—OYC for their own curricula, further increasing the reach of these Yale courses.

The project was supported by grants totaling $3.8 million over six years from the Hewlett Foundation. Although those grants ended last year, there are grant funds remaining to maintain the forty-two existing courses.

OYC taught us to anticipate the opportunities to repurpose high-quality online materials again and again. For example, faculty have used parts of their OYC materials for their own regular classes and to create subsequent Yale College online courses for credit. Three FAS faculty are planning to use their OYC materials for parts of new MOOCs being launched this semester.

C. Yale College Online Courses for Credit

In 2011 Yale College introduced its first online courses for credit as part of Yale College Summer Session. Like every course in Yale College, each online course is approved by the faculty Course of Study Committee. Two online courses for credit were offered in 2011, eight in 2012, fourteen in 2013, and 18 are expected to be offerred in 2014.

Credit was awarded for successful completion of online Summer Session courses in the same way as for Summer Session courses held in New Haven. The tuition for taking the online course has been identical to the fee for taking the course in New Haven ($3,300 last summer). All online courses run for five weeks, just like the regular Summer Session courses.

A key element of Yale College’s online courses for credit has been that all students, wherever they are in the world, “come to class” at the same hour and see and engage with one another and the instructor in real time. The technology platform enables twenty simultaneous live streams—thus allowing a seminar of up to twenty students or multiple sections, each with up to twenty. Already last summer (2013), two faculty members introduced the next step of having multiple online sections, and both were pleased with the results.

Assessments of the Yale College online courses have been conducted from both the faculty members’ and the students’ perspectives. All faculty members surveyed reported that their online course was worthy of Yale credit. The 2013 survey results added to these insights. All of the faculty responding thought their online students had as much as much (or more) contact time with the course as a comparable course in residence, and all thought their students acquired at least an equivalent amount of course content. The students’ survey showed that only 2.5% thought that the online environment did not allow them to analyze and think as critically about course content as a traditional Yale course.

D. Yale Center for Language Study: Consortium Initiative

Yale has a long tradition of extensive language instruction and has recently been offering its students more than fifty languages to study. However, enrollments are so small in some languages that it is difficult to support a teaching program (e.g., Dutch, Zulu, Romanian). To address this, Yale’s Center for Language Study entered into a partnership with Cornell and Columbia in which students at the three universities constitute one virtual synchronous class and are taught by an instructor at one of the institutions. The program is now in its third year, and eight languages are taught in this collective way, with Yale supplying two of the instructors, Cornell two, and Columbia four.

The language consortium model exemplifies a mode of digital education called a SPOC (small private online course). The language courses are taught live by an instructor at the sending institution. Students at the receiving institution are expected to attend a regular class in a designated classroom that is outfitted with the videoconferencing technology necessary to see and interact with the teacher and other students in the class. Students receive credit from their own institution.

E. Online Certificate by F&ES

For many years, the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) has offered short certificate programs for executives; for example, Chinese mayors and city administrators have come to campus for two-week summer sessions.

For the past three years, one of the F&ES executive certificate programs focused on mid-level environmental managers to help them address the importance of tropical forest conservation; these courses were offered in Central America and in Asia. Last spring, F&ES offerred a course in this program entirely online and offered it in Spanish. More than 400 people applied for the twenty-five places in the pilot course. Senior managers in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, and Peru participated in the online course.

The online certificate course was divided into six week-long thematic modules. The learning experience was largely asynchronous, allowing participants to complete the assignments at their own pace as they continued their professional responsibilities. The teaching tools consisted of interactive presentations, prerecorded guest lectures (produced by Yale), reading assignments, case studies, short answer assignments, discussion forums, and a final project. There were also two optional synchronous sessions that gave the students the opportunity to interact directly with one of the F&ES course instructors.

F. Online Degree: Doctor of Nursing Practice

In 2011 the Yale School of Nursing created a Doctor of Nursing Practice (D.N.P.) degree. This is the University’s first “hybrid” degree program: the curriculum features a blend of on-campus and online education. It serves those nursing professionals who want to be leaders in clinical settings. The program is designed for part-time study; course work is completed over a two-year period, with a Capstone project year to follow.

There are fourteen and fifteen students, respectively, in the first two cohorts, and the program allows the School to extend its reach: one student is enrolled from Israel, with the other students drawn primarily from around the United States. All are pursuing their studies without having to interrupt their careers.

G. Innovations from Distance Courses or Online Platforms Applied to On-Campus Courses

The distance education programs and platforms (such as that offered Coursera) have already engendered innovations for teaching at Yale, as illustrated in the following examples.

To help one section of his Yale students absorb the calculus concepts in Math 115, Jim Rolf used the Coursera platform last fall to deliver online video tutorials that the students were required to watch before attending classes. He also used the platform to have his students complete quizzes on the material before they came to class so that he could assess what topics had proven difficult for them to grasp; he then organized his classroom time to focus on those problems.

June Gruber, in her Human Emotion course last fall, required students to watch before class the lecture videos she created at the Yale Broadcast Studio for her Yale Summer Session online course. This allowed more class time for discussion about the lecture material.

Yale School of Medicine is introducing a new curriculum next summer. Similar to the calculus example, Deputy Dean Michael Schwartz is creating a set of online modules for the medical students to watch, and be assessed, in advance of class so that class time can be used most effectively for the students. Some of the modules may be posted online as a public service.

Economics professor Don Brown offers an example of “importing” an experimental teaching technique from his Yale Summer Session online course. During that course, each student had access to the interactive whiteboard in the synchronous learning platform to work through problem sets in real time, in full “view” of his or her classmates, with Professor Brown offering immediate feedback. In addition, each session was recorded and posted online so that students could review problems that may have stumped them. In his regular residential course last fall, Professor Brown introduced the same design: his students used iPads to draw graphs and write equations that were displayed in the front of the classroom. The written content as well as the audio discussion from class was made available immediately to the students, who could discuss the archived materials in chat rooms with other students or simply review the materials when preparing problem sets or studying for the exams.