Breaking Online Education With Bread

According to data released by the US Department of Education, four million undergraduates took at least one online course in the fall of 2012 (data).

Since the emergence of massive online courses, I have witnessed many ideas and innovations that challenge established ways of teaching and learning in higher education. I was accepted to Minerva, which strips away brick-and-mortar classrooms, but chose the almost 200-year-old Colgate University for its fusion of online and offline experiences. At Colgate, faculty are experimenting with online learning, from SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) such as the Advent of the Atomic Bomb to massive online courses like Greeks at War and Medicating for Mental Health: Judicious Use of Psychiatric Drugs.

As the data shows, there is no shortage of online opportunities, even at residential institutions. My classmates and I are excited about BreadX: From Ground to Globe, one of the first free online courses designed by students for students. Going live on the edX Edge platform on November 15, 2015, the course is targeted to middle schoolers around the world.

But the driving force of this particular course isn't faculty, it is students. From concept to production and implementation, a class of first-year Colgate students have been working in groups to develop BreadX. They have dug in to the science and issues behind bread, produced interesting videos, designed interactive questions and activities, and met twice a week during class seminars to update each other on progress and modify the project's direction.

"I have never taken a class that is so heavily student-run before," said Meghan Byrnes, one of the creators of the course. This is different. In addition to learning the content for her class, Meghan is also responsible for the construction of the subtopic "Bread Distribution." Basically, she has to research on bread's environmental and socio-economic impacts, then spin the content for middle schoolers.

For the online audience, this will be a chance to dip their toes into changing how people learn.

Professor of Geology Karen Harpp, who teaches the class, envisions the course as a community experiment in the ever growing need for online course development. "With this highly interactive and student-centered design, we want to push the frontiers of online education both for the students in the classroom and for the participants beyond the institution," Harpp says.

Rather than replacing the physical classroom, as most MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) do, Professor Harpp has been using technology to enhance in-person and active learning. "This course is about getting students to think innovatively, explore how we learn and how we can learn better, figure out how to reach people beyond the classroom, and try to make a positive impact on the world, all of which are made possible by going online," Harpp says.

The student creators sound like teachers when they talk about the pedagogical goals of BreadX: "We want to get students engaged and interested with the material and connected to their fellow students," Brynes says. "Activities are to get students really work with the material rather than just watching the videos online. We also encourage students to go out and explore the relevance of issues we talk about in their own towns."

"We are not only spreading knowledge, but also encouraging participants to think about how they can apply what they learn in our course to the real world, which is a very valuable skill," student Oneida Shushe says.

I think this model of learning is cool (not to mention that you get to make and eat bread). Learning goes both ways: students who develop the course and students who take the course both learn how to learn. And together they shape the course of an emerging technology and a new learning pedagogy. Ultimately, there is no fit-for-all approach. And each model has its own niche and potential.

When I think back my decision to forgo Minerva and attend Colgate, I'm reminded of the times where I discussed and shared views over a cup of coffee in the afternoon sun. I realized that what I value after a year at Colgate is the sense of real-world connection. Personally, I hate the panic when my computer crashes with an online submission due in sight. Also, I don't want to just "like" my classmate's answer by clicking a button. I want to give him a pat or high-five with a wide grin. Most importantly, I treasure my interaction with professors, not just in class or office hours, but sharing of life stories over home-cooked dinner, after guests' lectures, and during field trips.

I don't think that brick-and-mortar universities will be obsolete soon, but can definitely become better with new initiatives like BreadX. Technology is never a substitute, but a complement to make things better.

Q (Quanzhi) Guo is a sophomore at Colgate University. Originally from China and having lived in Singapore for four years, she is passionate about culture and human development. She now runs a blog called "XYZ with Q" for the Benton Scholars Program at Colgate and you can read more of her stories on Medium.

Bonus Colgate in 13 second video of breaking bread: