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E-seminars Bring a New Kind of Digital Learning Environment to CU and the Public

By Lauren Marshall

Over 35 e-seminars can be accessed through Columbia Interactive.

Just two years ago, technology was an experimental ingredient in Professor Alan Brinkley's history classroom. Today, Brinkley is a participant in the creation of a new kind of history learning experience, where technology is no longer an ingredient but the classroom itself.

The birth of the e-seminar, a new online learning experience that merges the knowledge and teaching of Columbia faculty with the interactive and multimedia potential of the Web, was celebrated at a launch party recently hosted in the Faculty Room by Columbia Digital Knowledge Ventures (Columbia DKV). Brinkley was one of a trio of faculty members who shared with colleagues their new e-seminars and their experiences creating them.

E-seminars are a new vehicle for Columbia students, faculty, staff, and the public to access Columbia's leading faculty. Access to all e-seminars is free to Columbia students, faculty and staff. Video clips and transcripts of faculty discussing topics or ideas act as the core text for e-seminars, which are accompanied by primary resources, such as photos, biographical data, excerpts from scholarly works, including those written by the faculty member, links to existing digital resources and, in most, discussion boards, which allow interaction with the instructor and other online students. All e-seminars feature new interactive educational tools that help bring alive faculty knowledge and teaching in the new format.

But as in the classroom, Columbia faculty remain at the center of the teaching and learning process of each e-seminar.

"Digital technologies offer faculty and students new outlets to creatively express their academic energies," said Michael Crow, executive vice provost, who has helped lead Columbia's venture into teaching and learning with digital technologies. "The result is a pure extraction of what each faculty member is doing in the classroom or in their research, which can be made available for a wider audience. The e-seminar can be seen as a form of publication, where the University is taking on the task of disseminating scholarship on its own."
For Brinkley, it all started with the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, which helped him experiment with digital technologies in the classroom. "I found that the ability to bring digital resources to my classroom was an enormous benefit," said Brinkley. "Not only did it re-energize my interest in the material, it made a big difference to my students." This success encouraged him to move on to e-seminars. With two in an eight-part series entitled "America Since 1945" complete, a first distillation of his introduction to post-war America course, Brinkley has witnessed first hand how traditional lectures can be enhanced in a non-traditional medium.

"The technology amplifies it in a number of ways I never could have imagined," said Brinkley of the documents, video, photo essays and political cartoons, even post-war video clips that Columbia DKV's research and production team added to accompany Brinkley's teaching and enhance the online learning experience.

E-seminar development is a multi-person partnership overseen by Kate Wittenberg, director of Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia and managing director for content development at Columbia DKV. An editor with expertise in the subject area works directly with faculty to plan each e-seminar. Behind the scenes, an intellectual property rights manager researches and approves the use of video clips, photos, maps and other visual aids. Meanwhile, a design and production team headed by Jason Fox, managing director for production, grapples with lay-out, design, programming, coding, and when possible, creates engaging original interactive learning tools that enhance the content.

For Dennis Dalton, Barnard professor of political science, who helped develop a three-part e-seminar series entitled "Non-Violent Power in Action, this collaboration was invaluable. "Working as a part of a team gave the e-seminars a facility and a capacity that they wouldn't have had otherwise," said Dalton. "I am thrilled at the new opportunities that have been extended to me and feel extraordinarily privileged to have worked with a team that is so accomplished in what they do."

In the e-seminar series, Dalton's passionate discourse on three aspects of the non-violence movement, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and his ties to Gandhian philosophy and other successful 20th century non-violence movements, is complemented by images and resources Columbia DKV rights manager Kathryn Pope discovered through her own research. For the second in the series, "Martin Luther King Jr., an American Gandhi," Columbia DKV's production team created an interactive timeline on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, bringing interactivity to a pivotal period in the American Civil Rights Movement through image, related biographical information of key people and other visual resources.

While several faculty members have condensed courses they teach into a three-to-five hour e-seminar learning experience, others, like Dickson Despommier, professor of public health and microbiology, saw the e-seminar as an opportunity to cover material that gets short treatment in class.

His first e-seminar in the series " Medical Ecology: Environmental Disturbance and Disease," entitled "Normal Environment: How Things Got this Way," with its overview of the complexity of the Earth, the interconnectedness of its ecosystems and the connections between the disruption of ecosystems and eruptions of human disease, provides that base-line knowledge. "We don't have time in class to teach a lot of the normal," said Despommier. "We have to go straight to the abnormal."

To complement Despommier's video discussions, the Columbia DKV design and production team added animations, one showing how cells evolve into complete organisms, in real time. The result is a learning animation that is among the most cutting-edge developed to date. In describing his e-seminar experience, Despommier said: "E-seminars improve knowledge by allowing a depth that you wouldn't otherwise find in traditional media."

With 35 e-seminars completed to date and a hundred more slated for development by the end of 2002, the e-seminar format is still in the earliest stages of development. But already its evolution is visible, as a variety of formats are explored and original interactive elements are created to complement faculty knowledge.

The question that remains is use, a question that is in the minds of faculty who help produce e-seminars, to which Brinkley responded: "We hope that the e-seminars are enough different from the conventional classroom experience that a variety of audiences will be drawn to them."

All e-seminars can be accessed through Columbia Interactive, which is available from the Columbia homepage. Columbia Interactive is a project of Columbia DKV, the organization that interfaces with Columbia faculty in the creation and dissemination of new kinds of online learning. Columbia DKV is headed by G. Todd Hardy, executive director and president, and counts a number of Columbia information technologists and editors among its staff. E-seminars, available to the public for $45, are part of Columbia's greater effort to bring the knowledge and teaching that occurs on campus to a broader audience.

Published: Feb 25, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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