Semester Online brings virtual opportunity, debate to WU
“I really wanted to get in the class—it counts toward my major. It also goes toward my gen. ed. requirements,” Frankel said. “The thing that I think most people don’t understand about it is you’re not watching a lecture inside a classroom. It’s not like one of your chem. lab things. It’s an actual class.”
Washington University’s first foray into online courses at the undergraduate level brings a national controversy that has engrossed higher education to home.
Semester Online, the University’s online education effort launched at the beginning of this semester, is the first program to bring together top schools offering virtual classes for credit. Hosted on 2U, a for-profit company looking to make money off the program by taking tuition dollars of students who participate, the program is also new in combining taped lecture-style portions with live video chat discussion sessions.
The idea behind the program is to give students access to courses offered at schools other than their own. This semester, for example, students could enroll in Emory University’s “Baseball and American Culture” class and receive history credit.
The program would also give students more flexible options in courses to take over the summer or while studying abroad.
“This is all new territory. It’s a very exciting experiment, and a lot of people want to try,” former Provost Ed Macias said. “It’s extremely collegial.”
People involved in the project jump to clarify that Semester Online is not the same as the massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered by schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, where classes are recorded and posted for anyone to view. But many of the same concerns surround the project.
“This is a complete experiment in higher education, just like the MOOCs are one version of the experiment while we’re a different one,” Roddy Roediger, a professor of psychology involved in Semester Online’s implementation, said. “People lump us in, Semester Online, with MOOCs, but it’s designed to be very un-MOOC-like. It’s not that we’re broadcasting to 100,000 people and don’t know who they are or barely know who they are.”
In May, Duke University chose to leave Semester Online after its Arts and Sciences Council voted 16-14 against partaking in the project. Duke University’s provost, Pater Lange, declined Student Life’s request for comment on the decision to withdraw.
Duke is not the only school harboring some unease over the program. A Student Life survey of 82 faculty members found that about 27 percent would be in favor of teaching a class online while 38 percent would be opposed. But about 50 percent of faculty said they think online courses have a major role in the future of higher education as opposed to 14 percent that do not.
“There’s all kinds of things that you’d want answers to,” Barbara Schaal, dean of faculty of Arts & Sciences, said. “What my concern is, we want to incorporate all the really good things and be careful about the things that might backfire. So I don’t reject it out of hand, and I don’t embrace it 100 percent either.”
Easing into the program, Washington University is only offering one class through Semester Online this semester: Environmental and Energy Policies, taught by Lowry. As faculty wait to see how students who take the class virtually compare to those taking the physical equivalent, most are primarily concerned with whether the courses offer students the same education as their physical equivalents.
VIRTUAL VS. PHYSICAL
Semester Online courses are split into two parts—an “asynchronous” recorded portion and a “synchronous” discussion section, which operates like a Google Hangout. Students are given about 80 minutes of taped material to go through before a live 80-minute discussion section each week.
Lowry said he was initially ambivalent about teaching an online course when the University approached him and about half a dozen other professors about joining the pilot program last spring.
“I didn’t really need the extra work, but I was curious. I was kind of interested to see how the process worked and what it would be like,” Lowry said. “I’ve tried to remain fairly agnostic because it is an experiment for the University and I understand there are concerns about online classes, but I’ve kind of warmed up to it.”
Lowry suggested that students not able to make it into the class with an enrollment limit of 100 take the online equivalent. But for students already in the physical class, the Semester Online course seemed unwarranted.
“He’s really compelling. He learns everyone’s name; he still has discussions, even though there’s like 100 people. So it definitely doesn’t feel like a big lecture class,” senior Caroline Burney, who is taking the class this semester, said.
About half of Lowry’s online students go to Washington University. While many chose it because they weren’t able to get into his lecture, others hadn’t considered the class until they heard about the new program.
Junior Kristen Chin said the live discussions are more personal than they might be in a large lecture-style version of the same class. But that being said, Chin noted that having classmates and the professor staring directly at you isn’t necessarily less intimidating.
“You see everyone’s facial reactions to everything, and you’re very up-close and personal, which can either be a good thing or bad thing,” Chin said.
Frankel said that while she finds the live discussions more dynamic than learning from a textbook, she would choose a physical class over a virtual one given the option. Just because of the way that video chat works, interrupting people or cutting in can be difficult.
“I think the thing that’s the most challenging about Semester Online, is making sure discussions are fluid,” Frankel said.
Mathematics professor Blake Thornton said teaching online classes could be fun for professors and sufficient for students but added that there might be some things lost in the transition, such as hints at deeper theory behind introductory material and opportunities for one-on-one guidance.
“We’ve been doing online homework for almost 10 years now, and I think it’s great except [for] students that run into trouble—it’s very hard to help them over email or chat or something like that. And sometimes they just need to be able to sit down with somebody,” Thornton said.
“What it’s going to have to add is the Socratic exchange. It’s not just discussions so everyone gets a say but where the student gets interrupted and has to defend [himself],” Pepe said.
For earth and planetary sciences associate professor Michael Wysession, who is teaching a Semester Online course next semester, the program is an ideal alternative to large lecture classes.
“I can’t have a conversation during a class with 100 people. It frustrates me that the student’s experience is largely passive…I know Wash. U. students have a lot to say on these topics, and they don’t get to say that in a lecture class with 100 students. I think students may even get more out of it than me standing in front a class and talking.”
Despite some of the concerns, professors approved by a large margin Semester Online for a one-year trial run, Schaal said. The decision made at a meeting held late last semester came several weeks after a town hall meeting on the topic, a meeting Schaal said saw unexpectedly low attendance. The meeting when the vote took place was standing-room only, she said.
There will be additional meetings throughout this year before they vote next semester on whether or not to extend the trial.
“Actually determining what works really well and what has some negative components—the devil’s in the details,” Schaal said. “But if we can do a better job of teaching, we should do that.”
LOW ENROLLMENT, LOW PROFITS
While Lowry’s class is known around campus for being in very high demand, with juniors finding it difficult to get in, that interest did not translate directly to the Semester Online version. And his class wasn’t alone in that difficulty.
Of the 10 classes being offered through the program this semester, many have enrollments in the single digits, with the most popular class having about 30 students, Roediger said. Those numbers come after extending the deadline and opening the courses to students at three “affiliate” schools.
While meager enrollment is not necessarily bad for the University, which is treating Semester Online as an experiment, it means particularly large initial losses for 2U, the for-profit business that provides the platform for Semester Online.
“Some of these programs, we fund up to $10 million upfront,” Chancellor Patterson, senior vice president of communications for 2U, said. “It takes a couple of semesters to become cash-flow-positive. We’re very hopeful and optimistic.”
2U would not specify the amount it makes on each student who takes a class through Semester Online.
Roediger said the modest financial commitment required on the University’s end is one of the most appealing aspects of the program.
“A lot of universities are putting a huge amount of money into online education, and frankly…some of them have lost a lot of money. One way of looking at this is venture capitalists are putting the money up to 2U, and we are getting to experiment with mostly other people’s money,” Roediger said. “We’re putting in some money, too, but nothing like what this would be to start on our own.”
Macias, who’s in charge of the Semester Online initiative, said the enrollment numbers are probably lower than they would be otherwise because students could not apply until mid-June while they could register for other classes in April.
“When we do it again, we’ll have a much longer time to be able to tell students about it,” Macias said.
Semester Online is on track to at least double next semester, with about two dozen courses being announced next week, according to Patterson. Ultimately, he said, they hope to increase enrollment about tenfold. But he stressed that with new courses and additional discussion sessions, class sizes shouldn’t increase beyond 20.
“We’re going to be very methodical about how big the program grows,” Patterson said. “We have a commitment to keeping the classes small.”
While the University as a whole is treating Semester Online as an experiment, psychology professor Mark McDaniel is the one in charge of actually studying the results. As he has a focus on human learning and memory, McDaniel said the program represents a novel opportunity to study how well online education actually works.
The two main things he says he will be looking at are student learning and enthusiasm.
“The idea would be that if these courses aren’t as effective, if they’re not promoting the kind of learning that we see in the natural courses, in the face-to-face courses, then it would give you pause as to how much we want to continue with these courses. That or a more nuanced approach would be they need some tuning,” McDaniel said.
While low enrollment numbers mean there won’t be a large amount of data to look at, McDaniel said there should still be enough results from the four classes being taught by Washington University professors to draw some conclusions.
“I think people will recognize the limitations of the data. They’re not going to be definitive, but I think they can be suggestive,” McDaniel said. “The strength is it’s going to be data from four very different courses, so that’s going to help.”
“We want to incorporate all the really good things and be careful about the things that might backfire. So I don’t reject it out of hand, and I don’t embrace it 100 percent either,” Schaal said. “It really can be transformative, and we want to go into it with eyes open. We want to be objective. We want to assess it. We want to really do this in the proper kind of way.”