Semester Online goes offline after ArtSci faculty reject resolution to continue involvement

| Staff Reporter

After College of Arts & Sciences faculty voted 130-116 to end Washington University’s partnership with Semester Online, the international consortium of participating schools has decided to disband.

Semester Online, the University’s first foray into online education for undergraduate students, launched last fall. The program allowed students to receive credit for classes taught by professors at other participating universities across the country and abroad.

In a vote marked by unusually high turnout, Arts & Sciences faculty rejected a resolution that would have extended the University’s involvement in the program.

After the school’s faculty voted to stop participating, Semester Online held an online meeting Wednesday, where members of all partner institutions agreed to end the program following the summer session, for which students are already enrolling.

The decision by Arts & Sciences follows continued debate over the University’s involvement in the program. At a faculty meeting last month, some professors said they felt the administration bypassed them to implement Semester Online and voiced disapproval with the fact that the program is run by for-profit business 2U.

“Regardless of the intentions of 2U at the inception of this project, we are left now with a relationship that raises questions of bad faith. In part, we cannot trust this relationship because there is a frustrating lack of transparency about it,” Michael Sherberg, chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literature, said at the meeting.

Thorp said that while the University will no longer be participating in the program, it will not stop exploring options for online education.

“This is something that faculty are going to increasingly want to have as part of their overall academic life, and I think we’re going to find academically driven reasons for this,” he said. “One of the things for sure that we’re going to do in the future is have the schools…work on these things and come to us with ideas—rather than the other way around.”

Semester Online classes had two main components: an “asynchronous” portion, in which students watched pre-recorded lectures on their own schedule, and a “synchronous” portion, in which a professor and students would video chat in virtual discussion sections. Class sections were capped at 20 students.

Faculty and administrators maintain that Semester Online was a valuable experiment in online education.

While many professors were uneasy about the program, some were highly supportive, particularly those who have actually taught classes using the software.

Michael Wysession, an associate professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences, has 11 students in his Semester Online course titled Critical Earth Issues this semester and said it has helped him connect better with his class.

“I find I know more about my students than [in] any other class of this size that I’ve taught,” Wysession said.

“When I’m in front of a class, there’s kind of a wall there,” he added. “This format totally broke me out of that mold…there’s no hiding. You scratch your nose, you’re right there. Everyone’s looking at everyone else’s face. People participate more, and I think it pushes some people out of their comfort zones a bit, but I think it leads to better discussions.”

Wysession and other Washington University professors who have already recorded lectures for the program will retain rights to the footage. He said he plans to continue using the tapes in other courses when the material overlaps.

“I think it’s a very interesting experiment in education, and I was really hoping we would be able to explore this more,” he said. “I have to say I am surprised and disappointed by the vote.”

Senior Samantha Allen, a student in Wysession’s online class, said she appreciates being able to pause or re-watch lectures and finds the synchronous portions unexpectedly engaging.

“I came in very skeptical about the idea of the interactive online classroom, and I really wasn’t sure of how that would work, but it’s just like being in a classroom,” Allen said. “It’s highly interactive.”

With Semester Online’s termination, some lament the loss of scheduling flexibility and diversity the program afforded. This semester, for example, students could get credit for a course titled Ireland in Rebellion taught by a noted scholar at Trinity College in Dublin.

“I just feel like the students have lost out too with the negative vote,” professor Roddy Roediger, who has been involved in the effort to implement the program, said.

Former Provost Ed Macias, who served as chair of the online consortium its first year, said data the University collected from the program’s first semester showed its effectiveness was about the same as that of a normal class.

“It was a very good experiment but never did I expect that it was more than a pilot,” he said. “We showed what we really wanted to, which was that students can learn as much in an online course as they do in a classroom.”

In a statement to Student Life, 2U wrote that while Semester Online will no longer exist this fall following a “mutual” decision between the company and participating schools, it was valuable in showing how the software, primarily used for graduate programs, could also serve undergraduates.

“Semester Online was always an experiment,” the statement read. “The pilot program experienced significant challenges related to the complexities of a consortium structure. However, the experience was informative and helped 2U develop its instructional model for the undergraduate population, which 2U will apply to the forthcoming online undergraduate degree program in nursing with Simmons College.”

Professor Mark McDaniel, who worked on analyzing the program’s effectiveness, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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