Soka University and my new position as Dean of Faculty, Undergraduate Program

(A note from March of 2017 ) After a fantastic interview and visit to beautiful Aliso Viejo, CA, I have been given the opportunity and honor to become the next Dean of Faculty for Soka University of America! The opportunity is very exciting as it includes a chance to join a dynamic and creative intellectual community as they provide a unique and excellent form of global liberal arts education. The work will include leading the undergraduate academic program, as well as to supervise the Learning Clusters, an experiential learning 3-week course unique to Soka University. In the coming years, I will also help Soka develop a new science concentration, which will focus on Life Sciences and which will feature a brand new science building and a cohort of newly hired science faculty.

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Some signature features of the Soka University of America academic program include a common curriculum featuring two courses entitled “The Enduring Questions of Humanity” and “The Enduring Questions in Contemporary Contexts,” as well as common curriculum courses on Communication Skills, Modes of Inquiry, the American Experience and the Pacific Basin. Soka University features an interdisciplinary faculty without departments, a hybrid academic calendar that includes both semester-length courses and three-week experiential “Learning Clusters,” and a very strong emphasis on Global Citizenship. Their program offers a degree in Liberal Arts in one of four concentrations, which include concentrations in Environmental Studies, Humanities, International Studies, and Social and Behavioural Sciences. The campus houses all of its students in a beautiful residential campus in the hills above Laguna Beach, in Aliso Viejo. The Soka University of America is also a relatively new liberal arts college – founded in 2001 – and has a strong emphasis on Asia and the Pacific Basin and many similarities to Yale-NUS College in Singapore, my previous home institution.

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Soka University of America leads the US in its international component of students, with more than 40% international students among its 430 enrolled undergraduates, who represent dozens of countries.  The university is founded on the belief that “student-centered education” can promote peace and human rights “by fostering a global humanistic perspective on the world” with “creative co-existence of nature and humanity.”  All of the Soka University of America students are required to reach a high level of proficiency in a foreign language, and all participate in a study abroad semester, as well as a variety of experiential and international trips connected with the academic program. Soka is tied in the USNews rankings of National Liberal Arts Colleges at  #41 with Dickinson and Whitman College, and ahead of several well-known colleges such as Occidental College.  I am extremely excited to begin this new position and look forward to getting to know my new colleagues at Soka University of America, and helping them further develop their excellent academic programs!

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Day 2 of STEM Innovation Symposium

Day 2 of our STEM Innovation Symposium included a number of fantastic talks by Carl Wieman, Nobel laureate in Physics, as well as plenary talks by Bob Kamei of NUS, who leads a new center at NUS known as ALSET, and by Adrian Lee, who helped create the NUS Special Programme in Science, and who is a leader in flipped classroom pedagogy.

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Carl Wieman’s workshop was more of a dialog with the audience, and we had about two hours of Q&A with our visiting Nobel laureate on all aspects of teaching and learning. Carl described how to design effective learning outcomes, and pre-class assignments that will enhance student learning. He provided a diagram for structuring an active learning class which included a mix of small mini-lectures, punctuated by clicker questions with feedback and discussion questions. His examples included courses in biology and physics, and gave good illustrations of how to implement more effective techniques in teaching. Within his field of physics he also stressed having everything in the class in alignment with learning goals – including in-class activities, readings and assignments. In developing an active learning environment, it is important to have this alignment to provide reinforcement for the students as they construct their new ideas both in class and out of class. With his wife, Sarah Gilbert, Carl Wieman has created a number of very useful resources for guiding instructors as they retool their classes in this way, and these resources can be found at the CWSEI web site:


Carl Wieman’s evening talk reviewed his journey into the world of science education, after he had an “enlightenment” 30 years ago. This enlightenment, which he has described in earlier articles, came from realizing that his students after 17 years of success in classes were clueless about physics. Yet when they entered graduate school, in only 2-4 years they became expert physicists. This caused him to study the “learning puzzle” and he realized that by combining cognitive psychology, brain research and university classroom studies, a “scientific” approach to teaching was now available. This involved being aware of motivation, connecting with prior thinking, applying what is known about memory (which downgrades lecturing as an effective instruction method), and providing explicit authentic practice of expert thinking with timely and specific feedback on thinking. His subsequent research has validated this technique with numerous controlled studies, and he is now working to implement large scale reform in university science education, which is the subject of his new book – Improving How Universities Teach Science.




Yale-NUS Press Release on Carl Wieman and STEM Innovation Symposium:

Carl Wieman’s slides from his workshop on Active Learning entitled: “Implementing evidence-based teaching methods” – carl.wieman.slides.from.yale-nus.workshop

Carl Wieman’s slides from his public lecture at Yale-NUS College “Taking a Scientific Approach to Science Education” –

NPR interview with Carl Wieman from April 2016 – 

NPR interview with Carl Wieman from June 2017

Carl Wieman’s new bookImproving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative.


Additional photos from the STEM Innovation Symposium, Day 2

These photos were taken from the auditorium, so apologies for poor lighting and resolution!

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Day 1 of STEM innovation symposium

Day 1 of our STEM conference on April 27 featured a number of remarkable presentations, which were kicked off by a talk by Drew Endy (Stanford) entitled “Learning by Doing – Lessons from the Frontiers of Engineering and Biology.”  The slides for that lecture are online at this site: In the talk, Drew focused on the development of bioengineering, and its roots in his experience at MIT. He reviewed how humans have been doing bioengineering through the centuries in domestication of animals and development of crops but also drew a contrast with the new development of patented organisms, and the huge explosion of new capabilities that will bring about expansive economic opportunities and cures for diseases and world problems. In his approach, Drew underlined the importance of focusing a curriculum around motivation and mechanisms instead of details. In this effort avoiding jargon is key, and he pointed out how the words “vector” “expression” and other terms have vastly different meanings in engineering and biology. Within bio-engineering is the opportunity to train students to cure diseases, save environments, understand and debug natural environments and even to design and build natural organisms.
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Drew promotes a Design/Test/Build approach to synthetic biology, and also the developments of standards to enable rapid exchange of ideas within the field. He likens the effort to playing with a “4 key keyboard” to create all the organisms within nature and beyond. This can be used to create systems, devices and parts of organisms, as well as entirely synthetic creatures. In his experience developing the IGEM program at MIT, Drew was inspired by Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” where the learning is to be treated as “a co-creator of knowledge.” He documented the growth of IGem from its origins in 2003 at MIT when it was a handful of people to 2015 when there were literally hundreds of teams, thousands of students and dozens of countries participating. The iGEM is a prime example of active and authentic learning, as students use research tools that create new organisms and cures. He documented several “biological parts” and products that arose from iGEM competitions, developed and patented by students. At Stanford, Drew has offered a course called Bioengineering 44, the “Fundamentals for Engineering Biology Lab.” This course has developed student abilities to extremely high levels, and Drew shared assessment of how student confidence in their abilities grew in many levels. He assesses student competency by a Likert scale where students can range from complete ignorance of a subject to levels where they can teach other students a topic. This Bioengineering 44 course was followed by a course Bioengineering 80 – “Introduction to Bioengineering (Engineering Living Matter)” – in which the entire class takes part in an effort to make a new lifeform. Drew describes this as “creating life” – an amazing course goal to have for an undergraduate intro course!  In this final project Drew describes how they will design up to “10,000,000 base pairs of DNA in 2,000 bp chunks.” The course included an investment of about $200,000 but allows students to “express their designer DNA in a test tube and use mass spectrometry to see what molecules it makes.” As Drew says in the final project description, “Our collective goal is to construct life.” Within the course students learn to write simple scripts in Python, annotate DNA, estimate storage capacity for genetic material, and other very advanced learning goals. Drew used Slack to communicate within his course teams and with his TAs. This course was followed by an innovative course LAW 4014 – “Law, Technology and Liberty” which joined bioengineering experts at Stanford with legal scholars from the Yale Law School.
In the final part of his talk, Drew made a case for freedom in biotechnology – an “open source” approach. He likened this to freedom to read and write – which all would grant is a benefit for a democracy. In Drew’s idea, reading and writing and DNA manipulation all should be guaranteed to all citizens to preserve freedom and to allow all to participate in “using the language” of life – DNA. It is a provocative idea, and one that leaves us all with a lot to think about!

Other talks on Day 1 included a diverse mix of talks in three parallel sessions. Parallel sessions included a QR symposium, a Biology and Life Science Education session (featuring Yale-NUS profs Ajay Muthuru and Jan Gruber, shown below) and a Physical Science education session. After lunch we enjoyed excellent plenary talks from Sandy Cook (Duke-NUS) and Matt Stamps (Yale-NUS). Sandy gave a wonderful overview and demonstration of her TeamLEAD team-based learning pedagogy, employed at Duke-NUS for over a decade now. Her demonstration included having us assemble in small teams and work together to answer quiz questions based on her first 15-minute mini lecture. It was wonderful that she embodied her philosophy of education and did not lecture about her active learning pedagogy . She stressed the values of TeamLEAD, which was developed by experts in Medicine and Business, as it helps students work cooperatively in high performing teams which better emulates their working environment.
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Matt Stamps also gave a fine plenary talk about his innovative work in Mathematics pedagogy at Yale-NUS College. Matt uses a program called “Strengthsfinder” to evaluate his students, and also assembles them into teams within his Math classes. This program is able to help students identify their ability to execute, think strategically, build relationships and influence others. By bringing in this program into his teams he is able to help students grow personally as well as develop skills in mathematics.  He also has been using a program known as WebWork to develop automatically graded customized math problems for his students, using a Teaching Innovation grant from our Yale-NUS College CTL.
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Photos of Ajay Muthuru (Yale-NUS), Jan Gruber (Yale-NUS) giving talks within the parallel sessions of our STEM innovation conference.
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STEM Innovation Symposium at Yale-NUS College Singapore

Our Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning sponsored a conference on STEM Innovation in Singapore on April 27 and 28, and we arranged a very interesting set of sessions from leading educators from across Singapore, with speakers from NUS, Yale-NUS, NTU, SUTD, and other Singapore institutions, as well as visitors from Stanford University. Our keynote speaker, Nobel prize winner Carl Wieman, discussed STEM education and provided both a public lecture on “Taking a Scientific Approach to Science Education” as well as a workshop on “Promoting Active Learning in the Classroom.”  The conference is sponsored by the Yale-NUS CTL, and our organizing committee included Eunice Tan (Yale-NUS), Tim Wertz (Yale-NUS), Kiat Hwa Chan (Yale-NUS), Bryan Penprase (Yale-NUS), and Adrian Lee (NUS). The conference featured keynote talks by Drew Endy (Stanford), Sandy Cook (Duke-NUS), Bob Kamei (NUS), Adrian Lee (NUS) and Matt Stamps (Yale-NUS) as well as the workshop and public talk by Carl Wieman. The web site for this conference is at, and we have posted PPT/PDF files for the presentations and videos of the various talks on this site.  Subsequent blog posts will report on some of the highlights on the conference.


Visit to IIHS Bangalore and IUCAA Pune

After classes finished at Yale-NUS College, I made a visit to two of my favourite cities in India, Bangalore (home of the Raman Research Institute and IIHS), and Pune (home to the IUCAA astrophysics Institute). The trip to Bangalore and Pune allowed me to meet with some of my collaborators both in astrophysics and from our work with the Liberal Arts and Sciences in India. In Bangalore, I met with the director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore, Aromar Revi, who described some of the new programs at IIHS, and updated me on their plans to expand their institute into undergraduate education. At present the IIHS offers a Master’s degree in Urban Practice and conducts research on cities and urban areas within India and beyond. Aromar is also a member of the IPCC group studying global climate change. We had a great discussion about IIHS, global warming, and the future of liberal arts in India. While in Bangalore I also had a great visit with Lakshmi Saripalli at the Raman Research Institute, and we discussed her recent work in astronomy and our future plans for meetings on the Liberal Arts in India.
After Bangalore, I met with my friend Somak Raychaudhury, the Director of IUCAA in Pune and long-time collaborator in the Future of Liberal Arts in India. We discussed new programs at IUCAA, the new Indian AstroSAT astronomical satellite, and the possibility of development of remotely operated telescopes within India for undergraduate research and teaching. Somak was interested in developing small remotely operated telescopes at the IUCAA observatory in Girawali ( – and we made a plan to develop a pair of small telescopes in this site about 100 km north of Pune to enable students from across India and beyond to remotely acquire data to develop their own research projects.
My wife Bidushi and I gave a talk at IUCAA about astronomy and space tech in Singapore and shared the work that we have been doing at her Space company known as Bhattacharya Space Enterprises. I talked about our work with the recent supernova and other observational projects I have been doing at Yale-NUS with my students. I also outlined a system for remote observations that can help foster a global undergraduate collaborative research community in astronomy, through a networked platform that combines tutorials in astronomy education, observational proposal submission, and telescope scheduling. The system would allow for a group of students to plan, propose and implement their own research projects in observational astronomy using a network of telescopes across the earth. An outline of how the system might work is shown below – and I hope to develop this platform to link students from the US, India and other countries to operate a global network for undergraduate research in astronomy.
Along with the visits to research centers in Bangalore and Pune, we had a number of very interesting visits and discussions with engineers and scientists involved with space technology and astronomical instrumentation. The instrumentation group at IUCAA has done an amazing job developing the adaptive optics system known as Robo-AO, and a fiber fed spectrograph for the Indian telescopes. We met with Anamparambu Ramaprakash who showed us the IUCAA instrument lab – photos are below. It was great to see Ramaprakash, who I met at Caltech about a decade ago, when he was working in the Caltech instrument lab on Robo-AO with our Pomona College student Dan Beeler. Dan is a CTO at a startup company in the Boston area that is making advanced medical technology – another testimonial of the power of liberal arts in STEM!
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Another highlight was a series of discussions with Aafaque Khan, a young scientist and lead engineer on the Solar Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (SUIT) on-board Aditya-L1, an Indian spacecraft. Aafaque was part of the Young India Fellowship, a Delhi-based masters program in liberal arts that was the precursor for the new Ashoka University. I discussed the latest developments at both YIF and Ashoka, and it is wonderful to see how the Liberal Arts in India has connected to a broad range of programs and institutions, and no doubt Aafaque’s broad education in humanities and social sciences from the YIF program has helped him in his work at IUCAA. From the discussion with Aafaque, I was inspired and look forward to further discussions in India about liberal arts and astronomy. We are planning a meeting at Ashoka University for March 2018 and I also hope to visit Ashoka University some time to give talks on Indian astronomy in the coming years.

Resources – 
Our Talk to IUCAA – with Bidushi Bhattacharya, CEO, BSE – “Island Universe – Astrophysics and Space Tech in Singapore” –

Teaching Portfolio Workshops

As part of my work as Director of the Yale-NUS Teaching and Learning Center, I ran several workshops for faculty on creating teaching portfolios. The faculty of Yale-NUS College work hard on developing innovative common curriculum courses, conducting world-class scholarship and building an entirely new undergraduate college in Asia offering an innovative liberal arts approach to education. My job is also to help them tell the story of their own teaching practice – which is best documented in the form of a teaching portfolio.
During the prior year, I have been studying teaching portfolios with help from the dazzling array of visitors to Singapore sponsored by the NUS CDTL. This included Dan Bernstein from U. Kansas (, who is the author of the book “Making Teaching Visible – Course Portfolios and the Peer Review of Teaching.”  ( Dan gave a great talk on the benefits of a portfolio as a mechanism for disseminating  teaching innovations within a community on a campus or even across a wide geographic region. Later on we had a visit by other scholars such as Rick Glofcheski of U Hong Kong who has repeatedly won awards for his teaching as the best instructor of all of Hong Kong. His work is also well documented by teaching portfolios, as is the entire program in Hong Kong for teaching awards. At NUS I was on the  UTEC committee that would judge NUS faculty teaching portfolios for teaching awards, and from that experience I gained a lot of insight in the way that such portfolios are structured. A final point of information came from a visit by Thomas Olsson from Lund university who presented on how his university uses teaching portfolios.

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In my workshop I tried to bring all of this together and convince the faculty about the power of a teaching portfolio to present evidence of the nature of a professors “teaching practice” – ideally one that documents with concrete evidence of student learning and a thoroughly integrative approach to teaching that includes deep reflection on student learning, basing course design on research-validated teaching approaches, and incorporating assessment into the modifications of the courses over the year. The result is a “reflective and integrative practice” which showcases a professor’s teaching philosophy, along with examples of student learning and other pieces of evidence to provide insights into how the instructor thinks about teaching and improves.  I stressed to the faculty that no one style of teaching is best – and that it is a very personal process of discovery, with some thoughtful assessment built in, that can help faculty arrive at an awareness of their teaching philosophy. One tool for starting is the Teaching Perspectives Inventory – which divides one’s teaching approach into components and helps faculty become aware of some of their motivations for teaching. In addition to these sort of diagnostics, frequent mid-course surveys and a careful study of post course feedback is essential for improving one’s teaching and becoming aware of one’s strengths.
The materials from this workshop are below – and I look forward to sharing these portfolios and techniques with other faculty as I am convinced that such portfolios are rewarding and valuable to create, and can help faculty develop more effective teaching practices and improve the learning of their students.

Resources for Teaching Portfolios:
Slides from my Yale-NUS CTL Workshop:

Visit from Rainier Weiss to Yale-NUS and LIGO Gravitational Wave Discovery

One of the most exciting discoveries of the past few years is the detection of gravitational radiation using the LIGO interferometer. These magnificent machines have been developed over more than 20 years, led by Rainer Weiss and Kip Thorne at MIT and Caltech. After such a long period of development, it is wonderful to see these machines make such an exciting discovery – and to give humans their first view of the universe using gravitational radiation. It is not an exaggeration to state that this discovery in many ways is like Galileo’s first view of the heavens in 1610 with a telescope. And like Galileo, the presence of LIGO and gravitational wave telescopes will open up dazzling arrays of new discoveries. The gravitational waves can traverse all of space, and pass through galaxies, planets and even the early universe. The extreme penetrating power of gravitational waves make them a powerful diagnostic of previously invisible explosions and entirely new classes of astrophysical objects.
The discovery of gravitational radiation was based on a merging of two very massive black holes – one at 29 and one at 36 solar masses – that collapsed together and merged in a mere one tenth of a second. The waves were detected on September 14, 2015 at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (09:51 UTC) by both of the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, USA. Since the objects were billions of light years away, however, we are only now detecting the cataclysmic merger of black holes 1.3 billion years ago!
During the merger the new black hole was created, and over 3 solar masses of energy was liberated in just 0.1 seconds. As E = mc² – this results in a luminosity that is over a trillion times greater than the brightest objects known in the universe – the quasars. These titanic energies pass through us and through our planet undiminished and undetected – until now – as LIGO for the first time can listen in on these cosmic quakes and begin to study and measure the presence of previously unknown giant merging black holes.
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One of our Rectors at Yale-NUS College, Sarah Weiss, is the daughter of Rainer Weiss, the LIGO co-developer. We had the great fortune of two days with Rai Weiss at Yale-NUS on April 9, and he gave marvellous talks that both described the development of LIGO, and the significance of the discovery of gravitational radiation. Our students had the chance to learn directly from him about the incredible precision of LIGO – which is capable of measuring motions within its mirrors of the magnitude of 1/10,000 the size of the diameter of a proton.
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Supernova 2017cbv in NGC 5643

As our data from the NGC 5643 supernova continues to come in, we are building up an ever better light curve from our Supernova!  The Type Ia supernova is caused by a white dwarf star collapsing and creating a cornucopia of new elements – Nickel, Iron, Cobalt, and also Gold, Platinum and other heavy elements. The explosion and death of the star seeds the galaxy with new life – in the form of a blast wave of enriched elements which speeds away from the explosion at a fraction of the speed of light. The evolution of the light curve follows several stages. The first stage includes a rapid increase in brightness which comes from the expansion of the supernova – which i the early phases has a luminosity that increases with R², as the supernova remains hot and dense and is unable to cool. As the supernova reaches maximum brightness, the expansion is met with a cooling that causes the supernova luminosity to level off; in all such explosions luminosity scales as R²×T^4, and at maximum brightness these factors tend to offset each other. After maximum brightness, the radioactive decay products in the supernova begin to inject gamma rays into the cloud, heating it up and extending the brightness of the supernova into what is sometimes called a “shoulder” of the light curve. The half lives of radioactive Nickel and Cobalt are fixed, and provide an extension of the light curve for several months before a stable isotope of Iron is produced.
With our telescope in Chile and our crew of Yale-NUS students, we have built a very capable group for studying supernovae. The students, Rohan Naidu (Yale-NUS ’17), Jerrick Wee, Joanna Wang, and Nilotpal Chakraborty (Yale-NUS ’19) have worked together very well and each have contributed toward our research paper which is being written now at Caltech. Our light curve has continued to improve and we now have combined observations in the BVRI and YJHK filters – giving a wide range of observations from blue optical light all the way to the infrared. These combinations of colors allow us to measure the temperature of the supernova, and to detect the various phases of radioactive decay and cooling in the supernova. When combined with a mathematical model of the expansion, we can also learn about the amount of dust and absorption in the galaxy and foreground, and more precisely measure the peak luminosity and initial detonation time of the supernova.
We are working with several of the amazing Carnegie scientists in Pasadena during June and July to prepare a paper on the object. We are grateful to Ben Shappee (one  of the leaders of the ASASSN project, and now Carnegie/Princeton/Hubble Fellow), Rachael Beaton (Carnegie/Princeton/Hubble Fellow) for their help interpreting our data and guiding our work. The Carnegie Observatories also have created the amazing Las Campanas Remote Observatory – and through Michael Long and the OCIW crew our class at Yale-NUS College was able to obtain data from the supernova during class time in Singapore to help contribute to their light curve that they are separately publishing. Our group of students, along with the ZTF Caltech Summer Undergraduate Astronomy Institute, was able to share some of the summer with Carnegie Observatories as we visited their historic center on Santa Barbara street, and merged our undergraduate researchers together in visits to Palomar Observatory and to the Caltech atheneum. You can see more about this joint effort at our ZTF Undergraduate institute web site –
We are using the modelling packages known as SNCOSMOS and SNooPY to make these models, and are getting some great results on this exciting object!

Coursera Partners Conference in Boulder, CO

On March 28-31 I had the opportunity to represent Yale-NUS College at the Coursera Partners Conference in Boulder, CO. Richard Levin, the Coursera CEO, suggested that I attend, as I was planning to work with him and Coursera during my scheduled sabbatical for Fall 2017. The meeting included all the leading online course developers, and offered a chance to glimpse some of the ways in which online courses and technology are shaping education at larger universities across the world. The MOOC has come along way since it began around 2012, and new formats that integrate in-person instruction, artificial intelligence, and that offer course credit or micro degrees have added a new dimension to the online learning experience.
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During the conference we heard talks from many of the leaders in higher education in a number of very interesting keynote talks. The meeting began with an introduction from University of Colorado officials, who pointed out the growth in CU and its role in creating patents and new companies in the Boulder region. Daphne Koller gave a wonderful keynote explaining the history of Coursera, and some of the ways that their online courses have profoundly improved the lives of students across the earth. In her words, Coursera was about “transforming life by accessing the best learning environment.” she is proud of the 25 million “learners” and 100 million enrolments, and noted trends that include increasing enrolments across the world with largest growth (over 50%) in South America and Africa.
Additional keynotes in the first day included a talk by Ted Mitchell, former U.S. Undersecretary of education, who discussed how higher education is changing and how online learning is helping shape the future of education.  Some interesting elements include “learning hubs” that the US State Department is running to provide online courses across the world. Some of the refugee camps in Kenya and elsewhere are opening online learning centers, and Coursera has started a free certificate program for refugees to help them get an education. One quote from the meeting, from H.G. Wells, was that “History is a race between education and catastrophe” – and clearly this quote applies to some of these present day situations.
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Rick Levin gave a great roadmap of where Coursera is going in the coming years, and noted that “we’re part of a world changing enterprise.” He stressed the importance of access, impact and quality, and hopes to make Coursera respond with answers to two questions – “how to respond to the needs of life-long learners?” and “how to increase social impact?” Rick gave some additional statistics about how Coursera is reaching a broad demographic – its students include 45% from emerging markets, and 89% over the age of 22. They are experiencing a large growth with 6 million unique “learners” in the past 12 months, 500,000 paid learners (77% growth) and some 200,000 on financial aid.  Levin is convinced that Coursera is doing a lot to help people in the “underdeveloped world” as well as responding to the needs of  millions of people who need to train for new jobs and to respond to the future which will require skills beyond the traditional education experience of most people. Levin described some of the new degrees being developed at Coursera – such as the “stackable micro-credential” and other mini degrees  from universities such as U. Illinois and a French Business school in both tech and management subjects. These micro degrees appear to be a big part of the future of Coursera.
One of the most interesting of the keynotes came in the second day when Ashok Goel from Georgia Tech, who described how Artificial Intelligence had created a virtual teaching assistant in the Computer Science department at Georgia Tech. This virtual TA was given the name “Jill Watson” and was trained by analysing the responses of human TAs to student questions in the prior years of the course. Using neural net and other advanced algorithms, Jill was designed to create an accurate and very human set of responses to student email queries. The course designers were careful to be sure that Jill only would provide answers when her algorithm suggested an extremely high probability of having a correct response, as to prevent mis information from this technique. The students were not told that Jill was an AI “bot” – and some even had such a high opinion of her that they wanted to nominate her for the best TA award at Georgia Tech! This amazing (and somewhat disturbing) use of AI was also the subject of an October 2016 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, with the title “When the Teaching Assistant is a Robot.”
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During the breakout sessions and discussions I had a chance to meet a wide range of experts in education and discussed with them some of the ideas about how well online learning can help students in smaller liberal arts colleges. Like we learned within the LACOL (Liberal Arts Consortium for Online Learning) project, the main emphases for liberal arts colleges are to improve the “in class” experience of students, as well as to increase the ability of students from diverse backgrounds to build their experience and performance in certain cases. The LACOL experience showed us that for small liberal arts colleges online learning in a few areas shows great promise. This includes an online quantitative skills course – perhaps as part of a “bridge program” for entering students, a method for offering small enrolment language courses to students distributed across a wide geographic area, and using technologies to help students work  collaboratively to annotate and discuss advanced literary texts in a social media type environment.
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 Some of the pictures below also come from a brief tour of the Fiske Planetarium at CU Boulder. My old astronomer friend Doug Duncan was at the conference and took a few of us around campus to see the model solar system and his amazing planetarium. Doug has done a fantastic job building up the planetarium, developing original shows, and providing fantastic outreach to a broad range of students, K-12 teachers and college undergraduates. His current project is to prepare for the 2017 August solar eclipse, and he made a point to promote safe eclipse viewing with our Coursera conference attendees!
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As online technologies advance I am sure that they will have a profound effect on all institutions of higher learning, including liberal arts colleges. It was wonderful seeing how these technologies are advancing and I look forward to seeing how in the coming years both the in-class and “asynchronous” parts of online learning can be fine-tuned to help students learn more efficiently and effectively.

Visit to Yale-NUS by Lucas Swineford from Yale University

During March 19-24 we hosted Lucas Swineford, The Executive Director of Digital Education and Dissemination at Yale University. We hosted Lucas at Yale-NUS College to discuss technology enhanced teaching and to explore new ways of using digital media and flipped classes in our Yale-NUS curriculum.  Lucas gave a wonderful talk about the developments at the Yale Teaching Center, and we met with Lucas and many of the NUS leaders of teaching and learning in the Center for the Development of Teaching and Learning (CDTL), the Center for Information Technology (CIT) and the NUS Provost’s office. Lucas’ visit was also a great opportunity to catalyse stronger connections between the Yale-NUS CTL and our Educational Resources and Technology (ERT) division.
In Lucas’ talk we learned about how the Yale Teaching Center operates and some the new ways in which Yale has integrated technology into its curriculum. A number of new online courses feature synchronous online connections between students across the earth, as well as more conventional MOOC type courses, and every other type of instruction in between. I was delighted to learn more about Yale and to share some of our innovations at Yale-NUS with Lucas and hope that his visit will bring tighter connections between Yale-NUS, NUS, Yale and enhance our technology enhanced teaching.
In Lucas’ talk on March 23, he noted that the Yale President, Peter Salovey, had made a commitment to being the best at teaching among research universities. One key element in that initiative was the restructuring of the Yale Teaching Center, in a beautiful new facility in the center of the Sterling Library. The central location and enhanced resources embodies Yale’s commitment to teaching. Lucas Swineford, along with Jennifer Frederick, the Executive Director of the Yale Teaching Center, have done great work enhancing their support of faculty and expanding online and technology enhanced programs at Yale. Lucas described how they now have an online degree for physicians assistants which will be available in 2018, and how Yale Summer School has been offering online synchronous courses since 2010.
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In developing technology at Yale, Lucas has been able to reach a large number of faculty by convincing them that the technology will advance their students and will be easy to use. One example was the roll-out of their new learning management system, Canvas, where Yale used an extensive advertising campaign among the faculty. One piece of the campaign was  faculty offered testimonials that began “I chose Canvas because..” and then gave concrete reasons for learning Canvas. A web site,, was set up to enable faculty to easily learn more, and workshops in advanced canvas were set up. Key features like online quizzes and integration with the online forum piazza were implemented and early adopters were able to help other faculty learn how to make the most of the system.
One very clever use of the online Coursera platform was developed at Yale to connect with their alumni. The http://site was set up to allow exclusive alumni offerings, where alumni could have in-person conversations with some of the faculty as they offered short courses and lectures for a small fee. Online courses feature a prominent role in the Freshman Scholars at Yale program, where a new ONEXYS (online experiences for Yale Scholars) program ( offers a variety of programs, including a math skills course (Math115)  to help students prior to their enrolment at Yale.
Other technical advances at Yale include full integration of the lecture capture system Panopto into classrooms, and development of advanced media carts enabling high quality video conferencing and multi-party projection within classrooms.
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