The Pacific Alliance of Liberal Arts

Our new article which is entitled “After Yale-NUS Closure, liberal arts in Asia will benefit from Peer Support” has just appeared in Times Higher Education. We provide a strong argument for liberal arts education in the piece, and note that closing Yale-NUS College has squandered the hard work of many top scholars from Yale UniversityNational University of Singapore and the many Yale-NUS faculty who have worked over many years to create the vibrant intellectual cultures of Yale-NUS College and also the USP. The “merging” of these institutions is a huge loss. We are starting a new Pacific Alliance of Liberal Arts Colleges (PALAC) to foster greater awareness of the power of liberal arts education. This new PALAC group will bring top liberal arts programs from the US, Canada, China, and other Asia/Pacific countries to foster collaborative research, curriculum development and faculty and student dialogs on the most urgent issues facing our planet. The Alliance also can play a key role in advocating for liberal arts, and articulating a global vision of liberal arts that prepares students to help solve global grand challenges and to make progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). 

Our group will work together to help bring greater appreciation of the power for liberal arts education to build creativity, communication and cognitive agility in students. These skills are ever more vital as the exponential technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution accelerate change and bring entirely new industries together that can reshape our planet. Training students in liberal arts skills will allow them to contribute and to lead in these developments to help shape this development in ways that foster a greater sense of humanity and sustainability.

The other facet of liberal arts education is that it is effective not only for building skills in thinking and communication but for building deep skills in traditional disciplines from the beginning of an undergraduate’s career. The intense mentoring and interactive classrooms within liberal arts campuses enable students to inquire and grow develop their talents fully. A liberal arts college focuses on undergraduate education as its primary mission, and students benefit from this simpler mission undiluted by the quest for national research rankings, NCAA football titles, and the many other aspects of the larger R1 universities that can dilute their abilities to develop a student to their full capacity. A quote from the THE article illustrates the ways that liberal arts colleges have been effective:

Acceptance of the liberal arts model among Asian parents and prospective students has been driven by data showing how effective it is at preparing students for careers in business, science and other fields. In his 2011 book Liberal Arts at the Brink, Victor Ferrall notes that 12 of the 53 Nobel prizewinners between 1999 and 2008 who received their undergraduate education at a US college or university received it at a liberal arts college. This is all the more remarkable given that less than 2 per cent of US undergraduates study at a liberal arts college.

Such institutions’ ability to punch above their weight is underlined by a 2016 article in Nature, which noted that the top 10 institutions for producing Nobel Prizes per capita include two US liberal arts colleges, Swarthmore College and Amherst College. And National Science Foundation figures indicate that liberal arts colleges accounted for 27 of the top 50 sources of science and engineering doctorates per capita between 2002 and 2011.

University and College Rankings and the Prestige Spiral in Higher Education

The US News Rankings come out yesterday, and the Times Higher Education (THE) Rankings were released two weeks ago. These university rankings are not just for amusement but dictate the fortunes of institutions and key strategic planning decisions in many universities. As documented by the Chronicle of Higher Education, a survey of strategic plans from 100 public universities found that about 25% of the plans “explicitly affirm the importance of rising in the national rankings.”[1] University and College rankings, along with selectivity, enrolment, 6-year graduation rates, and support levels from alumni and other funding sources are perhaps the primary information that provides feedback on the success for a particular college or university. These indicators are very sparse and provide only the most rudimentary information to students and their families in deciding which institution to choose.

 Considering that the US higher education is an industry that includes over 4300 accredited public and private institutions, enrolling over 18 million students, employing 3.6 million people and garnering over $410 billion in revenues and donations[2], a more rational and richer quantitative and qualitative set of data is needed. Universities and Colleges often launch internal surveys, self-studies, and conduct extensive reviews of their curriculum and its effectiveness with an accreditation team. This information is indeed rich and qualitative, but aside from basic recommendations and a summary of accreditation results, the information is kept internally. To the outside world, including students and their families, there is very little information provided to select an institution on the basis of its curriculum and its teaching mission, aside from glossy brochures and institutional websites.

 It is important to stress that College and University rankings not only measure higher education institutions but shape them too. By dividing institutions into categories, the US News rankings lumps institutions into a few basic groups, and then begins the process of comparison between institutions within groups, bringing institutions into greater similarity through these comparisons. These groups include National Universities, National Liberal Arts, Regional Universities and Colleges and several other categories that are primarily based on the institution size and region. The US News rankings at least separates liberal arts institutions from research universities, which helps identify a group of institutions whose mission is primarily for undergraduate education instead of research productivity.  The other rankings, THE, and QS, bring simply rank universities on a mix of their research impact and place some weighting on teaching, primarily based on “reputational surveys.”

 In all rankings the data that is used is quite sparse and provides very little detailed consideration of the teaching quality and student outcomes. In the Times Higher Education rankings, for example, the largest factor for assessing teaching is the “reputation survey” (15%), followed by statistics such as the academic staff to student ratio (4.5%), and measures of doctorates awarded and institutional income (8.25%)[3]. The remaining 72% of the ranking is based on research, citations, “international outlook,” and “industry income,” which are all mostly irrelevant to the quality of education for undergraduates.   The US News rankings employ an algorithm that includes graduation and retention rates (22%), social mobility (5%), graduate rate performance (8%), and undergraduate academic reputation based on a peer assessment survey (20%)[4], which provides a larger weighting for student outcomes than the THE or QS rankings.  In response to criticism that the US News rankings simply locked in wealthy schools at the top, US News adjusted their algorithm in 2019 to include their “social mobility measures” that track graduation rates and performance from Pell-eligible students. These adjustments are most welcome, but ranking bodies and universities themselves can do better to publicly measure and rate their success in achieving their institutional missions and advancing undergraduate student learning within their campuses.

 A top ranking is a powerful signal to students, who then compete for admissions to the top ranked institutions. This signal then triggers higher selectivity and higher donation rates to the university, which only increases the rankings and competitive pressure for admissions to the institution, creating what might be called a “prestige spiral.” These competitive pressures for universities and colleges is only intensifying, altering the planning of universities and colleges to rise in rankings, leaving many of the lower ranked schools out of the limelight, with reduced enrolments and donations. The US News rankings, which have such a crucial role in higher education, are paradoxically determined by a small group of writers and researchers from an organization named after a now defunct newspaper. These rankings shape the destinies of centuries-old institutions, and strongly influence the decisions of millions of students and their families, as they decide on where to invest what for many families is the largest expense they will ever make.

Self-similarity spiral – perhaps a metaphor for the isomorphic pressures that the “prestige spiral” place on universities and colleges! (from Wikipedia commons; This file is licensed under the Creative Commons International license.

 Since the top-ranked universities are primarily ranked for their research “impact”‘ and funding levels, most families are making their decisions on information that is not primarily shaped by  how the institution advances student learning and achievement. To gain in the rankings as a university, an institution can only move forward by advancing its research impact, which favors a competitive race for better laboratories, more publications from faculty, and more research grants. Naturally undergraduate students, curriculum design and other aspects of undergraduate education are left behind. The rankings game also pressures universities into conformity – creating what is sometimes termed as “isomorphism” – as they all try to replicate the department structures, curricula and practices of the top-ranked universities to help them gain in rankings and gather more institutional prestige.

 Perhaps one method to improve rankings and remove the conformity pressures of isomorphism is to rank institutions how well they succeed in defining and achieving a unique and differentiated mission that shapes their approach to educating students. This process would also make the mission of an institution less a pro forma exercise, and more of a vital force in shaping academic programs and in providing a transparent vision of the kind of education the institution aspires for its students. John Sexton, the former President of NYU, in his book Standing for Reason, has suggested we consider giving institutions something like a LEED rating on their educational program. As many buildings are LEED Gold for their energy and sustainability, we could rank universities and colleges as Platinum or Gold based on their ability to articulate and accomplish their academic teaching missions. The rating would require institutions to articulate their unique mission and their unique “value proposition” to the world, and then be assessed on the basis of this mission. Sexton also suggests this process would be linked to accreditation so that “each school would have to state its essential philosophy and purpose—its ratio studiorum—and how it aligns its various programs in service of that goal.”[5] By requiring the university and college mission to have assessable and measurable components, it would place the educational program on the same footing as the research program of a university, with clear, transparent and measurable outputs. This could help universities evolve in directions that are true to their own missions, just as they hope to help students grow and learn in their own unique and differentiated ways.



[2] Ferall, V.E., 2011, Liberal Arts at the Brink, Harvard University Press.



[5] Sexton, John. Standing for Reason (p. 142). Yale University Press

The Demise of Yale-NUS College

The demise of Yale-NUS College is a great loss for higher education and for educators everywhere. As one of the authors of the Yale-NUS Curriculum Report, which was written at Yale in 2012 to help guide the development of the Yale-NUS common curriculum, and as one of the founding faculty of Yale-NUS, I feel a deep sense of loss in the decision by NUS to merge Yale-NUS College with its other liberal arts program known as the University Scholars Program.

I have written about the founding of Yale-NUS College and the longer history in Singapore and at NUS of innovation and experimentation in undergraduate education throughout the period from 2001 to 2011, before Yale signed their agreement with NUS. Two book chapters in the recent book Envisioning the Asian New Flagship University, tell the tale of how NUS was seeking to adopt liberal arts, experiential education and other cutting-edge undergraduate programs throughout the decade before approaching Yale. While I was at Pomona College in 2007, NUS was discussing with the Claremont Colleges the possibility of a Claremont-NUS College. The concept of a new liberal arts college in Asia was so exciting to me that I left my endowed professorship at Pomona College to help launch the new venture, and lived in Singapore for three years with my family working at Yale-NUS College.

At Yale-NUS College we built one of the most exciting learning communities ever, that blended the best practices of undergraduate education with a far-reaching and ambitious common curriculum. The curriculum included powerful courses in Literature and Humanities, Philosophy and Political Thought, Quantitative Reasoning, Modern Social Thought that inquired deeply with our international students about the human condition. Our brilliant students came from over 40 countries, creating the Yale-NUS College “community of learning” which was a cross-section of global perspectives. Yale-NUS offered an unmatched richness for developing deeper insights to the world our graduates would enter, which at the time was blossoming with possibilities for greater global connection and a more peaceful and enlightened era.

The sciences at Yale-NUS College were also well represented with a dynamic faculty regularly publishing in top journals such as Nature and Science, and who developed three amazing and innovative interdisciplinary courses known as Scientific Inquiry, Foundations of Science and Integrated Science. My role was to help develop and launch the year-long course known as Foundations of Science with my co-Coordinator Brian McAddoo. We built an amazing course which focused on the theme of the Anthropocene, with mini-courses that did “deep dives” in multiple disciplines and a Grand Challenge exercise where students studied and responded to the impacts of the Anthropocene. All of the Common Curriculum courses are described in a booklet on the Common Curriculum we produced at our Yale-NUS Center for Teaching and Learning, and all three of these science courses are described in my recent book, STEM Education for the 21st Century. Our Yale-NUS Center for Teaching and Learning also published a wonderful booklet on Diversity and Inclusion in Curriculum and Classroom after I left, and the combination of the curriculum, the community, and the emergent creativity of Yale-NUS is a wonder and something to celebrate.

Sadly, the achievements of the students and the faculty, who tirelessly pushed the boundaries of what could be possible in undergraduate education, was not supported by NUS and the Singaporean government after just 10 years since the agreement between Yale and NUS was signed. With this closure, Singapore and the world loses a great chapter in higher education and a brilliant achievement in creating a vibrant intercultural community from scratch. The reasons for this decision are not fully known, but was one made by NUS and Singapore. There were a few controversies about academic freedom with Yale-NUS College and in Singapore, which we have documented in our new book Neo-Nationalism and Universities, which is being released by JHU Press on September 7.

Yale insisted on academic freedom as a condition of its involvement. Whether this closure by NUS was one made for financial or curricular reasons, or with an eye toward increasing control over Yale-NUS is unknown. Yale-NUS College had a much more liberal approach to LBGTQ issues and a very free-spirited academic culture that was largely independent from NUS, and now faces the prospect of being merged into NUS. We all mourn the loss of this wonderful institution and will hope that what emerges as the NUS New College will the brilliance, freedom, and the creativity of Yale-NUS College.

Sunset viewed from our faculty apartment in Kent Vale c. 2017

Book Launch Event at UC Berkeley on September 14, 2021

Our new book, Neo-Nationalism and Universities – Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education, is being published by JHU Press. John Douglass is the lead author, and I have contributed a chapter that is co-authored with him on Higher Education in Singapore and Hong Kong. My chapter is entitled “Balancing Nationalism and Globalism – Higher Education in Singapore and Hong Kong.” The book launch event will feature John Douglass providing a review of the book which should be very interesting. I hope you can join! The event is September 14 from 10-11AM PDT and is online via zoom. The event is available at the link:

Remote Astronomy Images with SUA Nieves Telescope

From the work of Spring 2021, my students and I have produced some really amazing images. This has reduced some of my worries about the remote instruction, and thankfully our SUA Nieves Observatory, which can be operated from anywhere in the planet, came through. You can see more of these images on our Nieves Observatory website.

With my students based in Vietnam, India, Nepal, Japan, and New Jersey, I conducted “lab” sessions in my house where a group of students would appear on Zoom and we would virtually sit around the telescope while they took images. This continued throughout the Spring 2021 semester, and as the students became more capable I found myself able to step away and could watch them as they worked in groups to take images. It was interesting to see how their capabilites grew and the social environment that observing had created for them. Even in the virtual space, the process of peering into the vast blackness of space with the telescope was exciting and brought out a new dimension for the class.

To help them gain more experience, I also trained batches of students in a more advanced image processing program known as PixInsight. This program can do a more sophisticated analysis of the images, correcting for backgrounds, adding multiple exposures and enabling adjustment of the colors. Several of the students became experts and produced some marvelous and beautiful images which are below, with the names of our wonderful SUA students.  All of these images were taken with our SUA Nieves Observatory, except for those that are labelled “LCRO” which were taken by the students using a remotely operated telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

Kenichi Kagatani – M51 image

Shannon Kwo – M51
Breanne Martel – NGC 4038 – LCRO
Sakura Middleswart – M20 – LCRO
Sakura Middleswart – M16 – LCRO
Naomi Otsuka – M63
Maxine Wu – M82
Naomi Otsuka – M51 galaxy.

Best one M51



Hybrid Teaching Review

The new modality of the online class, brought to us by COVID-19 and the necessity of teaching students in person and online simultaneously, is known as the “hybrid” class. Formerly a “hybrid” course would be considered as one that mixed online asynchronous resources with an in-person class session. In the early days of online learning, a variety of experiments in “flipped” classrooms made use of this format and some promising new technologies and pedagogies were developed.

As we all have been forced to teach students in a mix of locations – both in person and remote – we all are needing to learn new techniques for providing an engaging classroom environment for both the in-person students, and one that also includes the remote students fully. This requires a mix of classroom hardware to facilitated video and audio linkages to remote students, and an admirable concentration on the part of the instructor who now has to juggle the various technologies in the classroom, and monitor the engagement of both audiences simultaneously, deploying a mix of techniques that will be effective for both audiences.

Image showing a schematic of online teaching - from Giulia Forsythe (wikimedia commons)

Image showing a schematic of online teaching – from Giulia Forsythe (Wikimedia Commons)

A variety of articles have been written on this topic, which are included with short summaries below. I hope these resources will be useful for instructors beginning their journey into hybrid teaching.

Josh Blackman, a law professor from Houston, has written an article in the online publication reason, on “The Difficulties of Teaching a ‘Hybrid’ Class.” This article is available here:

In the article, Dr. Blackman points out that the hybrid instruction is “the most difficult method, by far” among the options of in person, remote or mixed. The tension between the needs and pedagogy that would be best for both groups os students is succinctly summarized by Dr. Blackman:

“Pedagogy aimed at facilitating online discussion (like checking the chat feature and waiting for a student’s video feed to buffer) will annoy students in class. And pedagogy aimed at the warm bodies in the room (writing on the white board or calling on a student out of the microphone’s range) will annoy the students at home. Pedagogy aimed at satisfying both groups will fail to satisfy either.”

The importance of having the right technology in the classroom is noted, and in larger classes the difficulty of providing proper microphones and video for all students is especially difficult. Dr. Blackman enumerates the daunting list of things a professor will need to do to make things work well:

  1. “Professors will have to monitor the Zoom queue to check for blue hands.
  2. Professors will have to read sometimes lengthy questions on the chat, and decide if they merit attention. Doing so distracts from classroom flow. I find that ignoring a time-sucking comment saves time, but frustrates students who feels ignored. You can’t win.
  3. Professors will have to keep an eye on the Zoom grid to see if people are actually on camera or not. Professors should be careful to look at the grid on the podium computer (perhaps several feet away). Professors should not turn their back on the students in the class to watch the Zoom grid on the projector.
  4. Professors will still have to run their powerpoint presentation, or other visual materials.
  5. Professors will have to keep track of the screen share feature so that the students at home can follow the presentation.
  6. Professors will have to use polling features to asses the performance of students in class and at home.”

Dr. Blackman recommends the use of three monitors to make this juggling process easier. One monitor can be used to see all the students in a “Zoom grid” while a second monitor can work with the chat feature and the queue of questions. A third monitor for use with a powerpoint presentation is also needed. Careful placement of microphones and staging of the video monitors behind the instructor is also vital. It is noted that behind the instructor one should NEVER project the video of the instructor, as the time delay and mirroring effect can be very disruptive.

From reading the article I came away thinking a good setup would be a pair of displays behind the instructor – one showing the Zoom grid of students and one showing the powerpoint presentation – would be optimal. Then a set of 2-3 monitors facing the instructor would also be needed. One display would be used for the presentation powerpoint (and mirroring the display facing the students) and one to include the Zoom grid (also mirrored by the display facing the students). I also recognized that it would be helpful to have a camera to show the instructor – and allow the instructor to interact with the monitor showing the classroom presentation, as well as a camera facing the class. This could break up the potential dynamic of a group of students in class all hunched over their laptops and not able to talk with each other.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a raft of articles on hybrid teaching. I include links to those articles below, with short commentary.

Beth McMurtrie wrote an article in the Chronicle entitled, “Colleges Say Hybrid Courses Will Make the Fall a Success. But Will Students Get the Worst of Both Worlds?” This article is available here:

This article focuses on the awkward dynamics of teaching online and in person simultaneously with examples from specific instructors around the country. The article notes that the “hybrid” model we are discussing was originally developed at San Francisco State University in 2006 to help working adults attend class. The model in that context was known as the Hybrid-Flexible Course Design or “HyFlex” teaching model, and this has been described in more detail in an article by Brian J. Beatty. The article discusses how various campuses, including UC Irvine, had discussed using HyFlex teaching for Fall 2020 but met with strong objections from faculty, who instead prefer either all online or all in person instruction in their classes. The article discusses some of the concerns that Rob Elliot, a computer technology professor in Indiana has developed with the Hyflex technique, some of the innovations that various universities have brought to the technique, such as the Northern Arizona University NAUFlex teaching mode, and the Shenandoah University ShenFlex teaching mode. Northeastern University has its own flavor of Hyflex as well, known as NUFlex, and all three of these campuses have been working to outfit classrooms with advanced technology and also to work with clever scheduling tools to reduce the number of students in the classroom to enable 6-foot social distancing.

To enable wider access to the wonderful book written by Brian J. Beatty from San Francisco State University, I include a link to a free copy of his Hyflex book below. The book is licensed with a Creative Commons license which allows us “to do with it as you please as long as you properly attribute it” and so I am thankful for pioneers like Dr. Beatty who have made materials like this available to us for helping with our online teaching. The book is available online at the site

The Chronicle of Higher Education also has a series of newsletter memos on online teaching and the HyFlex model, also written by Beth McMurtrie. These are summarized below:

A July 9, 2020 memo shares expert advice from Jenae Cohn, an academic-technology specialist for the program in writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, about the HyFlex model. Her advice is to “Design a fully online class and think of the in-person part of it as an enhancement to the core of your coursework.” This way the in-person part is not given too much weight. In this mode the class time is a place to “connect and regroup” and to review content. This prevents an unfair dynamic where remote students are forced to watch as you have a lively and engaging time with the in-person students. A clever tip is to pair up remote and in-class students with zoom chat rooms to work on problems together. Another expert, Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, notes that active learning is difficult with students wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart. The solution is to “lean into technology” and make extensive use of live polling, and make use of chat and other technology to knit together students in conversation. Another way to build community is to use collaborative note taking – where students together work on an online shared document during a discussion. These notes can be used both to summarize the discussion and also to bring collaborations together among the students. A technique known as the “fishbowl” is also recommended, where a group discusses a topic and remote students observe and then provide comments. Then the roles can be reversed, with the online students discussing and the in-class students observing and providing comments.

A July 30, 2020 memo provides follow-up answers to questions that faculty have raised about hybrid teaching. These include answers to questions such as “how do I learn my students’ names while everyone is wearing masks?” (answer: discussion forum in a learning management system for introductions; can also include student videos). Another question is related to managing the difficult audio challenges in the hybrid class and having discussion. The memo suggests using text chat for discussion – which can include one of the students who can take on the role of “voice of the chat” (which allows the student to read out questions, highlight points that are coming up frequently in chat and help all the students to be heard), and also recommends using Zoom’s Live Polling feature.

An August 8, 2020 memo provides more discussion about how to manage sound issues in a hybrid class, tips for using chat and online documents to help students interact in class, and a very useful compendium of articles for more detailed and comprehensive guides to Hybrid teaching. The memo recommends a few articles which are listed here – Oregon State University has a “searchable Online Learning Efficacy Research Database, which includes academic studies on learning outcomes of hybrid and online education compared with face-to-face education. The database houses more than 100 peer-reviewed studies about blended and hybrid learning.” The memo also recommended The Blended Course Design Workbook by Kathryn E. Linder, the former research director of eCampus and now executive director for program development at Kansas State University Global Campus, which is described as “a comprehensive guide to evidence-based hybrid pedagogy, technology, and design.” Two additional articles were recommended by Jenae Cohn: Challenges of Student Equity and Engagement in a HyFlex Course, by Sebastian Binnewies and Zhe Wang (2019) and Learning style, sense of community and learning effectiveness in hybrid learning environment, by Bryan Chen and Hua-Huei Chiou (2014).

Among the many articles and resources within the Chronicle memos was a notable website with many tips about online hybrid teaching prepared by Jose Antonio Bowen, former President of Goucher College and author of the book Teaching Naked. This article seemed very helpful so I wanted to provide a brief summary below. The article is entitled “The Hyflex Flip” and is available at:

Dr. Bowen gives a point by point guide to using the “Hyflex” model effectively. He makes the point of stressing to use asynchronous materials extensively in a hybrid class. According to Bowen, “With hyflex, there is less need for large synchronous gatherings and even your on-campus students will appreciate the flexibility of asynchronous video content.” By reducing reliance on synchronous class time, it frees up more time for small group work with both remote and on campus students. Bowen recommends liberally using already existing videos that cover similar content online where appropriate, instead of relying completely on your own abilities to produce a vast number of online programs. By clever scheduling, and making use of evening and weekends, it will be possible to reach all of the students. The time saved from creating and repeating lecture materials can be deployed toward these small group and individual meetings. Bowen also recommends using the jigsaw pedagogy, whereby students can be asked to research topics in groups of 5 and teach each other and then teach the class about what they have learned. To make the experience more personal, Bowen also recommends using “personalized support videos” that give tips on the readings or short videos helping students through difficult concepts. Bowen recommends the “fishbowl discussion” and gives some details about this technique:

“If you really have to hold synchronous hyflex sections, note that a fishbowl discussion can work. One group actively discusses and the other group observes, awards points, scores using a rubric, or makes written commentary. Then you switch. If you switch between F2F and online then both groups get a crack at being center stage and you solve some of the microphone and other issues.”

The article he cites, written by Jeremy Knoll, gives a very detailed account of how to structure a fishbowl discussion and make it work effectively with both in person and online students. This article is available here:

An excellent step by step guide on the Fishbowl Discussion by Jeremy Knoll.

The final article I have studied comes from Williams College and is a booklet for “Strategies and Tips for teaching Hybrid and Remote Courses” which came from the “Teach Summer 2020 program” and is available at:

The guide is very effective and concise and gives 10 different sections that include

Different models of teaching a hybrid course – Some different models of teaching a hybrid course, with the relative advantages and disadvantages of each.
Thoughts on teaching in a socially distanced classroom – Challenges of teaching in a socially distanced classroom, with some potential solutions.
Strategies to help students manage an online course – The particular challenges that students face in an online classroom, with some potential solutions.
Strategies for keeping students engaged in an online course – Some simple tactics for maintaining student engagement during a synchronous, online course.
Tips for building community in a hybrid or remote course – Some simple and tangible ways to build classroom community in hybrid and remote courses.
Considerations for designing and grading assessments – Special considerations for designing and evaluating assessments in hybrid or remote courses.
Designing an accessible and inclusive course – Simple ways to ensure that a hybrid or remote course is accessible and inclusive to all students.
Helpful information to share on or before the first day of class – The most important details to provide students at the very beginning of the semester.
Some simple technology that may be useful – Some simple devices and technologies that might be helpful for achieving goals in hybrid and remote courses.
Glossary of remote and hybrid teaching terms – Definitions of terms commonly used to describe hybrid and remote courses.

The booklet is too detailed to summarize here, and includes many of the tips and ideas included in the articles above. Some of the uniquely useful parts of this booklet include the ideas for building community, making a course accessible and inclusive and how to share information with students as the course starts. These ideas are essential for preserving the sense of interdependence and building a positive social learning environment, and are well worth studying.

Pivot to Online Instruction at Soka University

As all of us in higher education know, March 2020 was a very difficult month. Perhaps the “ides of March” is a good way to describe the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid “pivot” that all of our universities and colleges had to make as we transitioned from in-person to online instruction and rapidly moved all of our students back to their homes in the middle of the Spring 2020 semester.  During that semester, as Dean of Faculty at Soka University, I was charged with helping our IT group and our Soka University faculty adjust to this difficult new reality, and to help our campus develop strategies and skills to completely overhaul our instruction within a few days to enable this shift to online instruction. Thankfully, our campus stepped up to the challenge, and the excellent work of our IT group enabled us to add in many new components to our Learning Management System to enable Zoom to be seamlessly integrated, and to also incorporate new programs for helping faculty provide more active online learning environments.  Working with the IT group, we planned a series of workshops for faculty in the days before Spring Break to train them in using Zoom, as well as other online technologies and to introduce some of the new capabilities of our LMS.  Within a week we set up a series of 4 workshops which were offered both in-person and online, expanded our LMS capabilities, set up blogs and websites for faculty to share ideas about online teaching, and also informed our students of these new developments.

One other interesting challenge was to try to adapt our teaching strategies for the online environment. Working closely with our Curriculum Committee, and its wonderful chair, Phat Vu, we set up a series of meetings to discuss the needs of faculty for online teaching and some of the lessons we were learning as we began our online instruction. These discussions went on throughout the Spring semester, and we used what we learned to identify some key technologies and ideas for teaching online.  I worked in the Dean’s office to help set up a faculty blog for sharing ideas for online teaching, and also designed and maintained a new website for online teaching for SUA faculty to share resources, technologies and guides for effective online teaching. One really useful new technology was the program known as Perusall, which enables faculty to assign readings to students and then allows students to read, annotate and comment on the readings in a social media type online environment. We managed to get our IT group to integrate Persusall with our LMS, and various teaching groups offering some of our required GE courses like our Core II class shared lots of good ideas for arranging good online discussions and readings in this new environment.  I had heard about this program while in Singapore, when we invited Eric Mazur to our campus at Yale-NUS, and it was wonderful to see it used to great effect in our SUA courses.

As we rounded off the second half of the Spring 2020 semester, discussions among faculty and students indicated a number of successes, and some challenges. Teaching music was very difficult as the Zoom sessions introduced small latencies which made it difficult for students to sing or perform together. Our very resourceful music faculty were able to instead work one on one with students also have students submit recordings for use in group music making.  We also noticed that the student time zones, distributed around the clock, made our “synchronous” teaching very difficult. This was something our faculty were able to adapt to but only with heroic efforts. One faculty member made two presentations for each of his classes – one at the regularly scheduled class time in PST and the other at 10PM-midnight, to allow for our students in Asia and across the world to participate. Many of our faculty arranged for tutorials or individual sessions for students who were distributed around the world. Since Soka University uniquely has nearly half of its students from outside the US, distributed across 40 different countries, we had a unique challenge on our hands.

In the planning for Fall 2020, we tried to learn from our experiences in that Spring. We set up a series of workshops during the summer to help faculty learn effective online teaching strategies. One event which was very effective was a workshop with author Flower Darby, whose book Small Teaching Online, was a great resource for effectively teaching online. I offered all the faculty a free copy of this book, and then we had a wonderful 90 minute workshop from Flower Darby where she presented a number of really great strategies for preserving the intimacy of an in-person classroom in the online setting. Our IT group set up literally dozens of sessions during the summer to train faculty in specific technologies. Since all of these sessions were recorded, faculty could view them online at their convenience.

Most amazing was the way in which we were able to reconfigure our class schedule. Since students were located in many time zones, we made a chart of the number of students in each time zone and then overlaid their waking hours on times within PST from 6AM to midnight. We realised that since we had a large number of students in Asia, we could reach a majority of our students in a synchronous format by opening up a number of classes in the 4PM-midnight range of times. Here too our faculty stepped up, and each of our concentrations and programs met to reconfigure their class schedules to fan out across all of the waking hours in California. We also preserved two times each day without classes – one around noon and another time around 7PM – to allow for meetings for both faculty groups and student organisations. Amazingly all of this came together in late May in advance of our registration period for Fall 2020. Even better, we were able to decide that we would be going online before class registration so students could sign up for their classes knowing that they would be online for Fall 2020.  Somehow the class rescheduling, decision for Fall 2020, and registration all came together during the summer, followed by a period of training during the summer, where faculty had the time to think about online teaching and plan for the upcoming semester.

Because of the training, the rescheduling and the care and effort of our faculty, we were able to have a very smooth Fall 2020 semester. We all miss our students on campus – and Soka University has become something of a wild animal park with deer, racoons, hawks and other creatures cavorting on our campus in the absence of our wonderful students. We are very excited about bringing students back for Spring 2021 however, when we should have almost half of our students back on campus and the rest of the students studying remotely. This will require us to learn (or “pivot”) to yet another modality of teaching – the “hybrid” class, which mixes in-person and remote students in a way that engages all of them. I will be teaching again in Spring 2021 with a mix of in-person and remote students, and will be sure to post about that experience as we get closer to the new semester.

STEM Education for the 21st Century helping with UN Sustainable Development Goals

The United National Sustainable Development Goals #SDG are a useful framework for future curriculum, as it aligns learning objectives within classes to urgent global needs. It was a nice surprise to get the email below from Springer letting me know that my new book, STEM Education for the 21st Century, is one of their “top used publications on SpringerLink” concerning one or more of the UN SDGs. As it turns out the SDG I am advancing most is the SDG 4 – Quality Education.  You can download the book and its chapters at SpringerLink at this location:

We are delighted to inform you that your book STEM Education for the 21st Century is among the top used publications on SpringerLink that concern one or more of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

They then advised me to let everyone know using social media to say that:

My book is helping solve some of the global challenges #SDG. Check out my eBook @SN_Authors 

SDGsFrom Springer comes this message as well:

Our books and journals share findings that address the world’s sustainable development challenges. We bring together research and other communities of people who are striving to solve these challenges. Find out more.

Soka University Observatory

As part of my work at Soka University, I developed a new observatory system, which is now known as the Nieves Observatory at Soka University of America. The telescope is a research-grade system that can be remotely operated and I am excited about being able to share the system with students who are all around the world, and also to help our Soka University students explore the universe with the telescope.  This will advance our Soka University mission to be not only global citizens but also cosmic or interplanetary global citizens!


My former student from Singapore, Jerrick Wee, helped set up our website which is intended to be something like a course on astronomy for students interested in using the system. The website is available at this link – The telescope has some fantastic characteristics, which for those interested in the tech – are listed below.


0.3m CDK Optical Telescope from Planewave Instruments.

The CDK14 covers a 70 mm field of view without any field curvature, off-axis coma, or astigmatism. The CDK14 is a lightweight carbon-fiber truss design weighs less than 50 lbs, with 3 cooling fans blowing air throughout the back of the telescope.

L-600 Direct Drive Mount

Designed and manufactured by PlaneWave Instruments, the mount operates with zero backlash and zero periodic error, virtually silent motion and slew speeds of up to 50 degrees per second!

Research-Grade Astronomical Camera

Equipped with research-grade FLI camera and a 10-position filter wheel. The camera has a field of view of 47 x 47 arcminutes. Our Plate scale at 1×1 binning is 0.7”/px, and we expect a our sensor will have Quantum Efficiency of over 50% in the mid-optical.

Broad and Narrow Band Optical Filters

The camera is equipped with both broadband and narrow band filters. For broadband we have the Johnson B and V photometric filters along with the Sloan (griz) filters. For narrow-band observations of nebulae we have H-alpha, OIII, SII filters.

The telescope was dedicated and named the Luis Nieves Observatory at Soka University of America in a ceremony which we conducted on October 12, 2019. The flyer for that ceremony is below.


We are incredibly grateful to Luis and Linda Nieves for providing the gift to make the telescope and observatory possible. Below is a photo of myself with Luis Nieves, our University President, Danny Habuki and a representative of the local Orange County Supervisor who presented us with a plaque for the telescope.


Since then we did a wonderful set of campus events, including a “star party” which invited all the students on campus and many of our faculty to have a chance to look through the telescope. Below are some photos from the star party event in late October 2019.

Nieves_Observatory_Starparty - 1

Nieves_Observatory_Starparty - 4

Nieves_Observatory_Starparty - 5

Our Soka University did a story on the telescope and how we have been using it for classes in the Spring 2020 semester. This semester was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but thankfully since the telescope could be used remotely, I was able to have many of our students access the observatory over the internet from their homes.  Here is a copy of that story from the SUA website, which was posted on June 8, 2020. The link for that story is:


Student and professor operate telescope in Nieves Observatory
Sweta Shrestha ’21 and Professor Bryan Penprase adjust the Nieves Observatory telescope.

By Riley Murphy ’20

Soka’s global vision is going intergalactic. The Luis and Linda Nieves Observatory gives Soka students—and astronomers around the world—access to powerful tools to study the cosmos.

The observatory, made possible by a gift from the Luis and Linda Nieves Family Foundation, features an advanced research-grade telescope that allows for the viewing of galaxies, nebulae, and other celestial bodies with precision. Observatory Systems of Pasadena, California, designed the observatory system using the latest telescope mount technology from PlaneWave Instruments of Compton, California. The remote operating system can be used by researchers and students from anywhere in the world.

Nieves Observatory at night

Bryan Penprase, dean of faculty and professor of astronomy, is a member of the Caltech-led group GROWTH (Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen), and looks forward to using the Nieves Observatory to connect Soka students with the group’s resources and expertise.

GROWTH’s network includes telescopes in the United States, India, Sweden, Taiwan, Japan, Israel, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Australia. “The sources that are discovered here in California can then be tracked by other telescopes around the world after sunrise in California,” Penprase said. “It allows a global community of astronomers to work together, and since here at Soka we’re so interested in global citizenship, I recognize that group to be an especially rich environment for our students to begin collaborating with astronomers from around the world.”

Soka students Taiga Morioka ’21 and Jett Facey ’21, who helped Penprase and Observatory Systems install the observatory, are co-authors with Penprase on a paper concerning a transient nova that is nearing publication in the Astrophysics Journal.

The “Sky Pavilion,” Penprase’s nickname for the observatory and its foundational platform, is located by the basketball courts on the western edge of the Soka campus, adjacent to the expansive green space of Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.

The setting, which provides clear viewing conditions shielded from Orange County’s urban light centers, has also upgraded the experience for Soka astronomy classes. And the remote control features were especially handy after students were forced to leave campus in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

M81 galaxy
Image of M81 galaxy by Rodas Bekele ’21

For instance, Rodas Bekele ’21, a third-year student from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was able to operate the telescope from Raleigh, North Carolina, where she is staying with her uncle’s family.

One of Bekele’s projects in “Astronomy 120: Earth’s Cosmic Context—The Discovery of Other Earths and the Origins of the Universe” was to capture an image of M81, a galaxy about 12 million light years from earth. So on several nights after the sunset in Aliso Viejo—later in the evening in North Carolina-—Bekele connected to the Nieves Observatory via the internet, set the coordinates for the galaxy and opened the camera’s aperture for several minutes. Her first results underwhelmed her.

“Honestly, when I started the class,” said Bekele, “I imagined when I looked through the telescope it would be like the pictures we see online, like the really colorful pretty galaxies, but it was literally like a dot.”

After experimenting with longer exposures and then running the results through computer software to adjust the color mix, Bekele, whose Soka concentration is Environmental Studies, produced a final image that Professor Penprase said, “shows wonderful detail in the spiral arms of M81 and reveals the structure of a beautiful face-on galaxy.”

Another class project singled out by Penprase was by Daniel Navarrete-Toulet ’21, who blended blue, green, and red images of the M51 galaxy to show its “true color.”

M51 galaxy
Image of M51 galaxy by Daniel Navarrete-Toulet ’21

Navarrete-Toulet, a third-year Social and Behavioral Sciences student from San Diego, said he was immediately transfixed by the project, staying up to nearly dawn working on the image. M51, a spiral galaxy 23 million light years from Earth, is in optimal position for viewing from Aliso Viejo in the 3 a.m. hour. Navarrete-Toulet focused on the galaxy and set the camera to capture light for 10 minutes for each of the colors. He then spent another 45 minutes adjusting the mix until he had it right.

“You don’t know what they’ll look like put together,” Navarrete-Toulet said, “but after that you get this magnificent little thing.”

The astronomy class was one of Navarrete-Toulet’s favorites this semester; so much so that he got permission from Penprase to use the telescope during his free time. And during Soka’s spring semester finals week last month, Navarrete-Toulet was connecting to the telescope late at night to work on his final project, studying evidence of planets in other solar systems by observing dips in the brightness of stars. It’s a relatively new method of study, and Navarrete-Toulet said he feels fortunate to have the opportunity at Soka.

“It’s really quite marvelous,” he said, “that something that we wouldn’t have been able to do 20 years ago anywhere, we’re doing today in an undergraduate setting.”

View more images at the Nieves Observatory website.


New Program for Fulbright Fellowship Advising at Soka University

After consulting with our colleagues at Pitzer College, which has one of the best Fulbright advising programs in our area, we developed a Soka University Fulbright program, led by faculty member Sarah England. Meetings at Pitzer College, and help from Nigel Boyle, then Dean of Pitzer College, helped us develop a program to recruit potential Fulbright fellows from among our Soka University students. This included a very proactive communication strategy and direct mail to the students in the summer encouraging them to apply for the program, followed by several workshops to explain the Fulbright program and help them develop their applications. The program worked extremely well, and we had eight applicants in the first year, with six finalists and two Fulbright recipients in 2019. In 2020, we had six applicants and two recipients. This year, even with the COVID pandemic, our students are very interested in getting a Fulbright fellowship and we are optimistic we can send some more of our students on Fulbright fellowships. The program is perfectly matched to our Soka University emphasis on Global Citizenship and since all of our students have taken two years or more of language, studied abroad and often have travelled to dozens of countries and served in international internships, our students are very competitive in the program. It has been a joy to develop this program and I am sure that it will benefit many students in the coming year and help them be more influential in their careers and lives as global citizens.  Below are some of the stories from the SUA website describing our Fulbright award winning students.


A new Fulbright Fellowship Advising program has been created at Soka University of America, to help advise students who are interested in being part of the Fulbright program, which awards grants to conduct research and teach English in more than 140 countries. The program was initiated by Bryan Penprase, dean of faculty, who appointed SUA anthropology professor Sarah England as the inaugural Fulbright advisor, with the support from SUA VPAA Edward Feasel. Professor England in her first year as Fulbright advisor was able to advise eight SUA students who completed applications for Fulbright fellowships in six different countries (Spain, Colombia, Indonesia, France, South Korea, and Portugal). Of these eight students who applied, six reached semi-finalist status, where the Fulbright commission recommends them to the host country. Of those six finalists, two were granted Fulbright Fellowships. The two SUA Fulbright recipients for 2019 are Sofia Dugas, who will be an English teaching assistant in Medellin, Columbia, and Miranda Almeida, who will be an English teaching assistant in Spain. The other applicants include Jessica Lee, Celeste Marquez, Suzanna Stockey, Zoe Frye, Michael Note, and Khyla Horton.

The Fulbright US Student Program is designed specifically for US citizen students with a degree from a US university to study, research, engage in an artistic activity, and teach English abroad. Grants are for one year and follow the US academic calendar. The program includes fellowships for research in one of 140 participating countries, or fellowships enabling students to serve as a teaching assistant in one of 75 participating countries. Fulbright awardees are also expected to carry out some form of community engagement project in addition to their research or teaching.

Soka University of America, with its commitment to developing global citizens, is an ideal training ground for students interested in Fulbright and other international fellowships. After the success of the inaugural year of SUA’s Fulbright Advising program, new workshops are being planned for students to apply next year. In the next round, we are hopeful to have even more applicants, and we will also help advise our domestic and international students interested in fellowships through the Princeton in Asia/Africa/Latin America programs, which offer a similar opportunity to work abroad to help NGOs and educators in a wide variety of countries.

Photo Courtesy of Soka University Archivist and Photographer.

Two students in Soka’s Class of 2020—Isolde Pierce and Trey Carlisle—have received Fulbright fellowships to continue their studies and contributions abroad.

Carlisle has accepted a research fellowship in Nanjing, China, and Pierce will be an English teaching assistant in the Canary Islands of Spain. The fellowships, which will start in January, are part of the Fulbright US Student Program.

Trey Carlisle ’20

The program, administered by the US State Department, is designed to build lasting connections between the people of the United States and other countries, which makes Soka students natural candidates. Two years ago Soka created a Fulbright Advising Program to help students navigate the rigorous application process. And now the program, led by anthropology professor Sarah England, has helped SUA students receive two Fulbright grants two years in a row.

Carlisle, whose Soka concentration is Social and Behavioral Sciences, will be looking into how Black and Latinx music and dance, such as Hip Hop and Zumba dance, can be used to foster appreciation for and understanding of the histories and cultures of the US and China. Carlisle, from Los Angeles, was inspired by his semester studying abroad in China.

“Even though Black and Latinx art forms are popular in China, there is still a lack of awareness toward the history and experiences of Black and Latinx people,” Carlisle said. “Similarly, although Chinese cultural expression, for example Tai Chi and Kung Fu, are extremely popular in the US, there is a great ignorance among Americans toward the history and the experiences of Chinese people.

“The goal of my research is to explore how both Chinese and Afro-diasporic art forms can be used as bridges to enhance cultural appreciation, rather than perpetuate cultural appropriation.”

Pierce, from Davis, California, said three international travel and education experiences at Soka sparked her interest in teaching abroad. As a freshman she was in Peru with biology professor Anthony Mazeroll’s Amazon research center. Before her junior year, she taught English to children in a service learning program in Chile. During her semester abroad in the Dominican Republic, she continued to hone her Spanish language skills and her awareness of Spain’s influence over Latin American culture.

In addition to teaching English on the Canary Islands, Pierce, whose Soka concentration is Environmental Studies, will work on a community project involving conservation in marine ecosystems.

“I hope to connect with the students in a way that inspires them to appreciate the environment and take care of nature,” Pierce said.




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