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    Photo by Sunny Kang / North by Northwestern

    As a Northwestern student, every time you want to spend a quarter away from campus, you face a hard choice. You’ve been offered an amazing internship. You want to study abroad in Latin America. You’re recovering from surgery or dealing with a family emergency. But no matter how incredible the opportunity or how pressing the need at home, the question still lurks: Will you be able to graduate on time?

    In the past, you may have decided not to go abroad at all, to enroll in five classes for a few quarters or to accept staying a little longer at NU to finish your degree.

    Not anymore. Starting this fall, Northwestern will provide a new solution—an online education program called Semester Online that offers small online classes for credit from a consortium of top schools.

    Semester Online was developed by 2U, an education startup that has received millions of dollars in funding from investors.

    The program transcends the online startups that have been popping up like weeds all over the Internet: Coursera, Udacity and edX all began offering MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, in 2012.

    While online education has been part of the college landscape for years, top schools only recently started embracing their social responsibility to change the workings of higher education, by moving some of their most popular material online for free.

    Thinkers and educators have prescribed online education as the antidote to a host of ills—the rising cost of a university degree, the difficulty of finding access to a good education in remote parts of the world and the way out of the quagmire where the value of college seems to have disappeared. Media has widely questioned whether or not college is worth it. It's outlandishly expensive and doesn't always offer the easy path into the middle class that it once did.

    Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller hoped to solve the first aspect of the equation when they left to start Coursera, “a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free,” according to Coursera’s website.

    Just one of Coursera’s courses might enroll more than 100,000 students, a number more suited for a college stadium than for a classroom. When Coursera’s classes went live, millions of people gained access to the kind of education they had only dreamed of. Students could learn new skills while caring for a sick family member or living in a recession-torn region. With the increased attention, publications ran story after story about the disruption happening in the education world.


    Semester Online is the opposite of a MOOC in almost every way. Only a very small group of students can enroll in a Semester Online course, and they must apply. Students will pay about the same to take an online class as they would to take one on campus (at Northwestern, full-time undergraduates taking four classes pay $3,615 per class). In the end, Semester Online students receive credit toward their degree.

    MOOCs, which are open to all, require students to do the work on their own time. Real-time contact with professors is rare. The best-case scenario results in bragging rights, but not degree progress. Herein lies the problem faced by MOOCs developers: Only extremely self-motivated students end up succeeding.

    Not all college students can learn in that setting. For students accustomed to the intimacy of a physical campus, even 200-person lectures seem huge and impersonal. There’s not much one-on-one face time with professors, and if you need help you’re more likely to ask a friend than casually stop by office hours.

    That's where 2U comes in. The education startup created a system of online education programs comprising small classes—only 15 to 20 people max—that act like a discussion section on a computer screen. All 20 students must show up at the scheduled class time to participate in a Google Plus-like classroom. Basically, you’re taking a class in the middle of the face grid from The Brady Bunch theme song. That means no napping or texting during class without everyone seeing you. You’re on screen for your classmates and professor to see, so you better pay attention.

    Photo by Ariana Bacle / North by Northwestern

    “You think online is less engaged than being in the classroom,” says Provost Dan Linzer, who has had a key part in building the cross-university program. “But this platform, you actually can’t tune out. You have to stay focused. Or your fellow students are going to go, ‘Yo, Jack! Get back in here!’”

    The online classes can also be more thorough than more traditional classes.

    “If you’re talking about some kind of scenario that you have in your head, and you want students to get in their head, can we create that scene and shoot it,” Linzer says. “So they’ll hire directors and actors and script a five to ten minute film. And create that scene.”

    2U doesn’t take the task lightly—or cheaply. They expect the program will cost a total of $35 to 40 million. This is almost four times more than the typical cost to launch one of the graduate programs they previously developed.

    They will shoulder most of the financial risk for creating the program, and they believe it will pay off, according to Jeremy Johnson, president of Undergraduate Programs at 2U.

    The high quality of the classes (consortium members include Duke, Emory and Washington University in St. Louis), combined with the value they provide to both students and instructors, makes Semester Online a compelling offering, attracting enough students to pay for the investment in full.


    One of the biggest criticisms of Semester Online is that it doesn't accomplish the goal online education traditionally seeks to achieve—expanding access to a much larger and more diverse group of students. Despite their drawbacks, MOOCs have attracted elite schools and ambitious students since they began singing their siren song just one year ago. 

    Gaurav Jhaveri, a college sophomore in India, is the poster child for MOOCs. Interested in programming from a young age, in college he realized that the computer engineering track was inflexible and too easy for him. An independent learner, he already knew most of the material and his assignments didn't challenge him. Then he discovered online learning through MOOCs. Since then, he’s taken online computer science courses from Udacity, edX and Coursera and is currently enrolled in an HTML game development course through Udacity.

    “I don’t want to waste four years just receiving instruction, doing the assignments that I already know,” he says. “There’s no point if you’re not pushing yourself.”

    Photo by Ariana Bacle / North by Northwestern

    But Jhaveri is not a typical student. He blithely talks about how fun his online game theory course was (“There is so much to learn!”) and acts like it’s no big deal that he’s taken five or six online courses in addition to full time university classes. His college work has been too easy because he taught himself so much during high school. Even without online courses, Jhaveri claims he would be learning on his own.

    When there are 100,000 students in a class, there’s no one watching to make sure students finish their work. Udacity courses in particular are self-paced with open enrollment. Anyone can join at any time, and as long as they finish the work by the end of the class, they will pass.

    But even Jhaveri appreciates the power of a passionate teacher.

    “I really want the instructor to not look like there has been a gun put to his head, he’s forced to teach,” he says. 

    Students like Jhaveri are the success stories of MOOCs, but it’s the flaky learners that have garnered MOOCs their greatest criticism—the outrageously high dropout rates. An article on The Atlantic’s website estimated that only about 20 percent of students graduated from one Coursera course, while a July New York Times interview reported that one edX online class, “Circuits and Electronics,” had a pass rate of less than five percent.

    MOOC providers also haven’t found a way to create revenue—and there’s only so much educators can do for free.

    “If they are paying as much as a normal student will pay, then I imagine the discussion may be more lively, more open-minded and creative than a free discussion board,” says Tony Wan, an editorial staff member for edSurge, a weekly online newsletter that covers all aspects of online education and education technology. “[Semester Online provides] more intimacy and a shared commitment to what’s being taught.”

    Jhaveri agrees that the small class size that accompanies a tuition payment would make for a better overall experience.

    “The biggest benefit of this would be the small size,” he says. “Normally in these MOOCs whenever you come across some problem or something you just go to the forums and you’re asking other students around. And it’s fine, there’s a million other people to help you. But there’s no better way to have your queries solved rather than from the professor himself.”

    Don’t discount MOOCs just yet. Northwestern anticipates launching a plan to offer them soon, separate from the Semester Online program. While their flaws have been revealed, they are far from dead.

    “There are still a lot of things they haven’t figured out yet,” Wan says. “I feel like the media is still going to be all over [covering MOOCs]. The people behind MOOCs, they’re professors themselves, so they fully know the clock is ticking.” 


    The idea for the Semester Online program started with the Provost of Washington University in Saint Louis, Edward S. Macias. 2U had been developing a graduate program there when Macias asked why they had never created an undergraduate program.

    “Our answer to [Macias] was we only want to build things as a company that we believe are going to be as good or better than the best schools in the country,” Johnson says. “We didn’t know if that was going to be possible.”

    They realized the best way to make an undergraduate program was through a collaboration between a group of universities, where highly ranked schools worked together to “create a resource for their students that would be unparalleled in terms of access,” Johnson says.

    The idea was not only to create a way to open educational opportunities at elite schools to thousands of students, but also to give students already enrolled at these schools access to more courses in more flexible ways. Johnson gave the examples of students studying abroad or staying home due to a family emergency or health issue. Semester Online would give them the opportunity to keep up with degree progress while away from campus.

    Linzer described the goal of online classes as a way to expand students’ scheduling choices, as well as “giving faculty at our institutions opportunities to play with new learning methods—new tech, new approaches to delivering content and engaging students in discussion, to see if that would improve learning.”

    Johnson talks often about expanding access and maintaining the standard for students who are used to a high-quality education.

    “The notion is for our students to think a little bit more broadly about what is possible as an undergraduate experience,” he says. “Expand the notion of your campus to all campuses. The world becomes your campus.”


    Semester Online courses will likely begin at Northwestern in fall 2013. Faculty members have been submitting course proposals, and a few will be chosen for a pilot year, Linzer says. The courses take six months to develop and take valuable professors away from their responsibilities on campus, so there won’t be too many courses initially. As the universities get a feel for how students and faculty respond to the courses, they can roll more out.

    The process hasn't been quick or easy. The consortium schools operate on different schedules and use different credit systems, creating challenges for the provosts as they try to build classes that will benefit students at all of the participating institutions. Because they’re starting small, Linzer is adamant that Semester Online is far from replacing a physical Northwestern education.

    “We’re not talking about moving the residential experience online,” he says. “This is an enhancement to the residential living experience.”

    Northwestern has held multiple faculty forums, where Linzer says some expressed skepticism, others were excited and all were curious.

    Mary Finn, the associate dean for Undergraduate Academic Affairs and the head of the Faculty Distance Learning Workgroup, has been involved in much of the planning and discussion around getting Semester Online off the ground. She says that both faculty and enrolled students wonder what they can gain from online classes.

    Photo by Ariana Bacle / North by Northwestern

    “There are lots of concerns about it,” she says. “If you teach at a place like Northwestern, if you go to Northwestern, you value sitting and talking and being in the same room with your professor, everyone recognizes that.”

    Would Finn teach an online class? Yes, she says, but only because she wants to get some experience with what so far has been only a theoretical concept. Finn stresses that because Semester Online hasn’t started yet, no one can predict whether it will end up being a long-lasting part of Northwestern’s offerings or just a blip on the radar.

    “I teach English, and you know, I can tweak and adjust as I’m going through, and do,” she says. “So those are the kinds of things—how well do those discussion groups and synchronous small groups work [online], I’d be interested to know how they actually turn out. Whether or not that format engenders the kind of conversation that a good professor can engender in a class is an open question.”

    Weinberg sophomore David Ryan, who is the Academic Chair of Willard, worries that even in such a small model as Semester Online, no online classroom can compete with its physical alternative.

    “I’m a little hesitant about the quality of the education being created by a computer screen," Ryan says. "I don’t know if it’s like this nostalgia, or being conservative about it, but I think there’s something to be said about all being in the same classroom together, with the professor. If anything, it might make it harder for people to pay attention, because there’s a lot more to distract you in your dorm room than actually in a classroom.”

    Recently, Ryan planned an event where Finn would come to Willard to discuss the new programs with students. However, the event hadn't happened yet, and Ryan knew only what he had learned in discussions with other students and Willard faculty fellows. That is, barely anything—about as much as the rest of the student body.

    “The words Semester Online themselves I’ve only seen from researching people like Dean Finn,” Ryan says.

    Finn agreed that the student body has been in the dark about Semester Online so far, and she says she hopes that will change as the program moves forward.

    “We need to make sure we have good policies and we have good practices,” she says. “To get those things in place and have good transparency, going forward. This all happened kind of quickly; we’ll hope for more transparent processes.”

    According to Linzer, this kind of experimentation has been the exciting part of planning Semester Online: embracing technology not to destroy traditional education, but to make it a better fit for today’s students. 

    “We’re in the business of trying to educate students, and if we can explore new ways of doing that education, that’s part of what we should be doing,” he says. “It’s fascinating to rethink the fundamentals of what a classroom is.” 


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