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Wash U. joins new consortium offering online classes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 15, 2012 - Washington University is joining nine other campuses in a new consortium that will offer online courses to students enrolled in their schools and others in what the group calls “a new, innovative program that transforms the model of online education.”

The effort, called Semester Online, will offer courses for credit that will include large lecture classes and smaller sections that feature interactive technology that will let students interact with their professors and with each other. Washington U. Provost Edward Macias, who helped organize the group, said it is designed to provide education that is just as effective as courses taught in the traditional way, in person.

“We wanted to extend the reach of Washington University’s academic offerings,” he told the Beacon, “but also provide online learning that is as rich and robust as the classroom experience.”

Other schools joining Semester Online are Brandeis, Duke, Emory, Northwestern, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Notre Dame, Rochester, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest. The consortium will be fully operational next fall, though some schools will offer courses before then, including one toward a master's degree in law at Washington U. The courses will be offered through technology developed by a company known as 2U, formerly known as 2tor, whose slogan is “Great Universities Unleashed.”

The rapid growth of so-called MOOCs – massive open online courses – has prompted a corresponding rush of research. This week, the American Council on Education announced an effort to examine the academic potential of such courses, supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Founation.

While online courses have been offered by university consortiums in the past, such as Coursera and edX, Macias said Semester Online will be different because it will enroll students who currently are students at either the universities in the new group or at other universities, where they are already paying tuition.

When they complete their online courses, he said, the credit they earn will transfer to their home institution, moving them closer to the degree that they have been working for.

That plan solves two questions that have been raised about other online course programs – how will they be paid for, and what will the students who are involved in them get in return.

Students who are already enrolled in the universities in the consortium will have their courses covered by tuition. For others, the charge will be about $1,400 for each credit hour.

“We think we have a really transformative new model,” Macias said. “It’s online education, for credit, from top-notch schools that will have the rigor and robustness of our in-class courses. We see this as a really winning possibility for our students and for many other students as well.”

How rapidly it will expand, he said, is difficult to tell.

“We’re trying to take this one step at a time,” Macias said. “We want to be careful, to make sure it’s top quality. We’ll try some things, then expand them and expand them. There are plenty of people who would like to be able to take these courses.”

The consortium also offers opportunity to professors who will be able to teach students beyond those enrolled at their university.

Macias said talks with 2U and with provosts at Northwestern, Duke and Emory helped get Semester Online started.

One of the keys to the new system, he said, is breaking down the large enrollment into smaller sections of 15-20 students each that will be fully interactive, with professors and students able to talk to each other. Students can use the technology for study groups as well, he said, no matter where they are.

“We think we have many of the things that are so important in our in-classroom courses,” Macias said, “with students being able to learn from each other and from faculty members with whom they have a close connection.”

Asked about the question of how professors will know whether students have actually performed the work that they turn in for the online courses, Macias said that in exam situations, professors will actually be able to see the students. For papers, he said, advanced software will help make sure that the work that students turn in is actually their own.

“A lot of work has been done to try to identify authentic papers in classroom situations,” he said. “Faculty have been shown how to authenticate.”

The name for the new venture evokes what Macias said it resembles – the chance for students to take advantage of the same kinds of new courses and programs that they could do if they spent a semester abroad, living in a totally different part of the world. If they want to take time off to work in a political campaign, say, or have an internship, they could still enroll in online classes and continue their education.

Macias said he is no stranger to the challenges and opportunities of innovative learning techniques. He said that under the university’s former chancellor, William Danforth, he was involved in trying to determine what higher education would be like in the 21st century – a time when the online capabilities available today could only be imagined.

Given that progress, Macias added, it’s hard to say where the explosion of online education will lead in the coming years. He is leaving his job as provost at the end of the current academic year to devote his time to figuring out new ways to using emerging technology.

“During that time,” he said of his previous work at trying to divine the future, “the Soviet Union fell and dramatically changed the world. Nobody in the room had a clue that would happen. Nobody predicted it. I’m not a good reader of the future. If you had asked me two years ago where online education was going, I would have given you a radically different answer. The online world was different. The quality was different. The actors were different.

“Things are changing amazingly rapidly. I can’t predict what will be happening two years form now. But I do think this is an enhancement that we’re working on. The university will find a way to have a very robust campus residential experience, but it will find other ways to enhance that learning. I don’t exactly know what the university will look like. But I do see this hybrid being pretty lively over the next decade. Do I think all these buildings will wither away? No. But this will change the nature of education.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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