By David Ellerbrock ’14
Times are changing. Pacific Lutheran University is changing with them. One professor is offering students chances to influence the direction that change takes by teaching through a new medium: online courses.
Professor Paul Manfredi, Associate Professor of Chinese Studies, was hesitant when first asked if he would be willing to develop online curriculum. It is the first year PLU had received the Teaching and Learning With Technology Grants. The notion of being one of the first instructors to take such a plunge didn’t at first fit into his idea of how teaching and learning should occur.
Manfredi values the interaction between teacher and student as the primary asset of classroom learning. Growing up in Indianapolis as the son of an Italian immigrant, he always felt like an outsider. He knew from the time he was an adolescent that he wanted “to get as far away from the US as possible,” leading him to eventually study abroad in China. Manfredi then studied language for four years, becoming fluent in Chinese.
The ability to bridge cultures and interact with people that he couldn’t at first understand filled Manfredi with a passion he hadn’t been able to find in his youth. He brought those values with him when he was hired at PLU in 2001. He explains that he could never teach a class where he is simply required to lecture without engaging students.
“If I couldn’t have that interaction, I wouldn’t want to do what I do,” he said.
Manfredi was wary that an online course would stifle the student-teacher interaction. The opportunity to be involved in developing a new way for students to learn was also intriguing.
Online education is “the perfect blend of exciting and troubling,” he said.
Professor Jan Lewis from the Office of the Provost says that the need to apply for technology grants was becoming more evident each year as the faculty noticed the influx of new technology that students were bringing with them when they arrived at PLU. The past year has also seen schools like Harvard offer free online courses which 100,000 people quickly signed up for. The digital era is upon us, but PLU didn’t want to simply replace traditional classes.
Lewis and the Provost and his staff began to ask, “How do we use the technology out there to best enhance learning?”
That question is one that Manfredi still struggles with as his online class, China through Film, continues to evolve. Only a quarter of his students responded to his request to meet personally. A core group of students are taking advantage of the interactive aspects of the course, such as forums and chat rooms, rather than the class as a whole.
The experiences from this semester will change the format in the future. Manfredi plans to develop more ways for students to decide together how they wish to be taught. He will continue to shape new technology by interacting with his students, some of whom he will never meet.