SESP sophomore Connor Regan often attended his Introduction to Innovative Marketing Communications class from the seat of a southbound Purple Line train car.
Regan took the class via the SemesterOnline platform last summer and fall, even though it was based at Northwestern. He said the class’ online nature helped him acquire credit while pursuing a strategy internship at 1871, a hub for digital technology entrepreneurs in Chicago.
“Imagine the Brady Bunch screen,” Regan said, referring to the way the students’ faces were aligned in a grid of boxes in the SemesterOnline interface.
Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms like Coursera and EdX have launched in the past two years, offering free online classes taught by professors from top-tier universities across the nation, including Harvard, Princeton, Virginia, Rice and Northwestern, as well as international schools like the University of Melbourne, Edinburgh University and the University of Toronto. They include recorded lectures, suggested readings (mostly free), quizzes, peer-graded writing assignments and discussion boards. Yale and MIT host free content on separate websites altogether.
Accessibility and inclusivity, as well as environmentalism, are at the heart of the argument for the expansion of digital academia. Companies like Boundless Learning are reshaping the digital textbook world to create greener, cheaper content for a wider range of students.
"Paper is on the short list of the things I hate," Boundless Learning CEO Ariel Diaz said. Boundless Learning offers premium textbooks and study materials for $19.99, though much of its content is free. The platform also allows students to “replace” their print textbooks - Boundless charts the outline of the print textbook and then provides the same information in a digital format. Diaz gave the example of a biology textbook with a photosynthesis chapter – Boundless determines the chapter is about photosynthesis and then provides its own hosted content about that subject.
"When people think digital textbooks, they think digital textbooks 1.0, which is a pretty poor product," Diaz said, referring to non-interactive, two-column, print-replica PDF files. "What we're building towards is the way content in the Internet age should be, which is the notion of being cloud-powered, which means you can build a community on top of it.”
While course credit offering depends on the discretion of students' individual schools, Coursera and EdX offer free certificates of accomplishment for passing students. Students who wish to earn a "verified" certificate under either system can pay a fee and validate their identities.
Coursera recently added a direct link to LinkedIn, allowing students to post certificate evidence on their professional profiles.
SemesterOnline does offer course credit, though it charges tuition as well – $2,250 per summer course and $4,200 per spring course, according to its website.
Lee, who taught the SemesterOnline IMC class, said that there’s no substitution for a great teacher standing physically in front of a great class, but she acknowledged the potential for lower participation and accountability in larger in-person classes.
“There’s no escape online,” she said. “Everyone is part of this, and they have to contribute. There is no back row.”
Weinberg senior Angela Song also took the class and said she enjoyed it, but she criticized certain technical kinks in the system, namely the fact that students had to dial in on their cellphones to be heard in class.
"I went over my cellphone minute usage, and that never happens," Song said. "My mom had to extend my plan – it seems a little antiquated."
The class met for a virtual live discussion section once every Wednesday, but the rest of the material was presented in pre-recorded clips and digital writing assignments. Lee said students had to absorb a minimum of three to six hours of material every week, but that did not include readings and other homework assignments.
“It makes the live sessions quite vigorous,” she said. “We had to get used to having interesting debates…that mimic the classroom, and it’s hard to get used to that in the virtual setup. I do believe we achieved it.”
Regan said the self-study expectation made it easier to feel emotionally disconnected and slack off outside the classroom if students didn’t make deliberate efforts to keep up on their own. He added that all class materials and “lectures” were offered digitally, either as videos or PDFs.
Some critics say that digital technology still excludes a swathe of people who have no computer or Internet access. They argue digital academia will become more accessible only to those who already have access to in-person education. However, Diaz said that as more smartphones are produced, that problem will disappear.
“If you think about it, the reason [this problem] is going to go away is not because everybody’s going to need a laptop, but because everybody is going to have a smartphone," he said. "And that’s going to happen extremely quickly.”
Diaz also pointed out that smartphone ownership is nearly ubiquitous in developed countries. With more cloud-powered resources and more people connected to the grid through smartphone technology, he said, education becomes more accessible and more collaboration-oriented.
And it makes it possible for people like Regan and Song to attend class on a train headed downtown.