Attach the word “alternative” to a term and it instantly appeals to our generation. Alternative music, alternative lifestyles, alternative clothing, even alternative education are all concepts that are dominated by the youth population.
Boston University — diverse in nature, with an undergraduate population of approximately 15,800 — has attempted to incorporate the word “alternative” into its newer education methods.
Education — for at least as long as Harvard University has been an institution — has taken place in the classroom, the lecture hall or the library. Generally, a professor stands in the front of the room and speaks about his or her area of expertise for hours and only occasionally encourages discussion by asking pointed questions to ensure the students understand the material covered in the set curriculum.
Today’s technological world calls for a change to this tradition. Finally, universities and colleges are accepting that the old way is not always the best way and that new methods may be more effective in reaching educational goals.
This is especially true regarding the digital natives who are entering colleges today.
Tailoring education to new needs
Professor James Lawford Anderson — otherwise known as ‘Lawford Anderson’ and Dr. A — teaches in the Earth and Environment department in the College of Arts and Sciences. He stresses the importance of tailoring his classes to his students’ needs.
“I like a learner-centered class as opposed to teacher-centered [class],” Anderson said. “Learner-centered is about the students, their focus. I don’t teach a class, I teach a student, and every student learns differently. Learner-centered methods are something that I bring to my classes. [What I do] depends on the size of the class.”
Anderson also noted the importance of finding alternative means to educate students outside traditional methods.
“It’s just so important,” he said. “The classroom [setting] is just the beginning. I am like a lot of college teachers. I just want to help with students having a valuable learning experience.”
It is true that education is necessary in the world today. But Anderson said a valuable learning experience can be more than just practical — it can also be rewarding for both students and teachers.
The methods to educate students change each year. Some learning methods stress online learning, while others prefer an offline approach. Some lectures are large, and some are small seminars.
The modernization of educational methods roll with the times — professors either adapt to small, personal changes within the classroom or to their department’s integration of online programs.
Changes on campus
BU continues to add online components to its teaching methods each year. Educational platforms including Blackboard Learn, SMG Tools, Org Sync and other online organizational methods supplement most courses.
BU recently decided to innovate with edX, an online course platform founded by officials across the river at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The program is not meant to replace what the university currently offers with online educational support, such as Blackboard. Rather, the program gives more flexibility for classes both to those on and off campus.
What BU hopes to achieve with the program is the ability to develop hybrid courses, a combination that allows students to have both online and offline learning experiences, according to a May 21 Daily Free Press interview with BU spokesman Colin Riley.
Within a year, BU will have five of these MOOCs (massive online open courses.) Eventually, a greater hybrid experience between online and traditional learning tools should be attainable through the edX program.
For students, a valuable learning experience can mean the difference between keeping a class and dropping a class or between enjoying a class and being there because they are required to be.
Alternative methods: the pros and cons
Sabrina Barbas, a College of Engineering junior, responded positively to the new, innovative learning methods taking place on campus.
“I think it’s great that BU is changing with the times,” Barbas said. “Maybe one day, everything will be online.”
However, Barbas admitted that these innovations, primarily regarding the number of new online tools available to students, have caused some confusion. She said there are also many discrepancies between BU’s separate schools. For instance, if a student was in a dual-degree program with the School of Management and CAS, there are Blackboard Learn tools as well as SMGTools to keep track of.
She said it is also difficult to keep track of when professors use online platforms and others do not, forcing the student to monitor assignments and course announcements in multiple ways.
“Maybe with time, the lines defining what is online and what is off will be more clear in the future,” she said.
Other students were skeptical about the effects of educational innovation at BU, expressing concern over what made these methods necessary at all.
“I am not sure why Boston University needs all these [edX] programs,” said Arvin Agas, a CAS junior. “I understand it’s necessary to have stuff like Blackboard, but a hybrid class might be too much.”
Some students doubted the value of new online programs, especially if these programs require more hands-on work.
Holly Posadas, a College of Communication junior, responded positively to the breakthrough with all the online programs, but did not feel that these necessarily applied to her situation. As a film and television major, Posadas admitted that she only uses Blackboard for handouts and information.
“More importantly, I need to be in the classroom and trying these things with my hands,” she said. “I don’t think it would be the same.”
Rhett Talks modernize education
In another attempt to modernize learning styles, Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore recently spearheaded an alternative to the standard lecture style with the introduction of Rhett Talks. These Rhett Talks, modeled after the original lecture series TEDx, features BU professors, deans and other figureheads of higher education in 15-minute presentations.
TEDx combine the ideas of Technology, Environment and Design for a broad range of talks that are posted online for the general online public’s viewing pleasure.
Similarly, Rhett Talks also deal with a broad range of today’s issues that might not be covered in the classroom. Topics range from “The Future of Energy” to “The Myth of the Freshman 15.” The purpose of the Rhett Talks is to create a healthy amount of debate and to pique interest and discussion among peers.
Anderson presented his own Rhett Talk on “The Future of Energy,” remarking that he was not expecting the talk to go well. However, he said he was more than happy to be wrong about that. In fact, Anderson said he was shocked to see how responsive BU students were to these talks compared to students at other colleges and universities.
“When I did those talks in dormitories at other institutions, the turn-up was meager,” he said. “This was my common experience.”
However, Anderson believes these talks provide a learning experience that is important but do not need to be part of the classroom. He also thinks that part of the success of the Rhett Talks comes from Elmore.
“It’s what I call the Elmore effect,” Anderson said. “The Dean of Students is really connected to the students of the university. He’s like a minister. He’s just connected to you guys. He put up a program that students will respond to. The Rhett Talk was overflowing with people. I was so surprised.”
Interaction between students and lecturers is an important factor in what makes an extracurricular lecture interesting. Even without the preface of what Anderson’s Rhett Talk was about, people came because they believed they could gain something from the talk that they could not have gotten from a standard lecture in class.
Perhaps this is a sign that education should continue adapting to the needs of the next generation.