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'We Gave It a Year'

May 1, 2014

Online education criticism, administrator-faculty quarrels and quality concerns -- the troubles that faced Semester Online and its partner institutions can be summed up in one word: skepticism.

One semester into Washington University in St. Louis’s one-year commitment to Semester Online -- 2U’s initiative to create a pool of credit-granting online courses that combined asynchronous content with live online sessions -- faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences there returned to the question last month. Their decision, which followed a 116-130 vote, was meant to end the university’s participation in the consortium. Instead 2U responded by abandoning the effort, leaving instructors at some partner institutions without an outlet for online learning experimentation.

“My sense is that Semester Online could well have been successful, given a little breathing room to develop more fully,” said Rogan Kersh, provost of Wake Forest University. “But faculty support is essential, and that ultimately wasn't there across all consortium schools.”

As faculty members at Washington University debated whether or not to participate in Semester Online for two more years, they had limited but unexceptional results to go on. The university’s contribution to the consortium’s fall pilot was “Environmental and Energy Policies,” taught by William Lowry, professor of political science.

Lowry’s course was neither better nor worse than a traditional section he also taught in the fall. In both sections, mean pre- and post-test scores rose from a 6 to a 19 out of 20. Across the consortium, professors reported similar results -- not eye-opening, but in no way disappointing.

“There didn’t seem to be any doubt at the end that you could teach people through online courses,” said Michael Sherberg, professor of Italian and chair of the department of Romance languages and literatures at Washington University. “That turned out not to be the question. What turned out to be the question is: Is this an operation that we wanted to be a part of?”

Sherberg said some faculty members harbored suspicions about 2U, the online “enabler” behind Semester Online, and how the administration had volunteered Washington University to the effort. He said few faculty members worked on the partnership before it was announced, and that reading the contract meant signing a confidentiality agreement.

“I can’t speak for all my colleagues, but I think that the deal-making left people feeling suspicious about it,” Sherberg said. “The operation began to seem a little shady.”

Washington University is still committed to participating in Semester Online through the summer. By then, the university will have contributed four courses to the consortium, one of which will be taught only once. Lowry will also return to teach two sections of his political science course online.

“I was disappointed, quite honestly, with the outcome of the vote by the faculty,” Lowry said. “I think there were serious questions about what online education would mean for things like summer school enrollment, things like that. My view was that we would get the answers to those questions by continuing this program for a couple more years.”

Two more years of Semester Online “just made sense to me,” Lowry said, but instead the faculty “pulled the plug before we could get some final results.”

“I thought it was going to pass,” Lowry said. “I thought it was going to be close, but I thought it would pass.”

'The Model Couldn't Work'

Announced in 2012, Semester Online drew a sharp contrast with massive open online courses. Beyond the emphasis on live sessions and academic credit, the courses were also unapologetically priced at $1,400 per credit hour -- more or less what students pay for traditional courses. Since the courses were offered to students at well-respected private and public institutions, the "learn from a star" factor that MOOC providers use to promote their offerings didn't quite work.

Semester Online also represented a departure for 2U, which normally works with one institution at a time to build graduate degree programs -- including its first doctoral program, announced last week -- tailored to the company’s platform. (On the day it announced the consortium would disband, 2U also introduced its first online undergraduate degree with Simmons College, describing Semester Online as an “informative” experience.) The consortium was, in other words, not just a foray into undergraduate education, but also a collaboration between top-tier institutions. 

Months before the fall pilot, three universities had already left the consortium -- Duke University in a move by faculty seen as a jab at the administration for circumventing shared governance. A fourth, Wake Forest University, joined only after deliberations that stretched into the fall semester.

“The Duke faculty didn’t even give it any chance at all,” said Michael Wysession, associate professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University. “Voted it down instantly. We gave it a year.”

Even among institutions where Semester Online was less controversial, collaboration sometimes gave way to suspicion.

Other than serving as a platform to experiment with online courses, Semester Online was initially seen as a repository of uncommon upper-level courses. As one Washington University professor said last fall: “I see it not as replacing our education, but enriching it.”

Some of the early offerings reflected that intent: Emory University supplied “Baseball and American Culture”; Boston College, “How to Rule the World.” While the spring and summer semester lineups contain their fair share of niche courses, they also include introductory courses in marketing, finance, computer science and psychology.

Emory University experienced “no overt rebellion” against Semester Online, said Darryl Neill, the Goodrich C. White professor of psychology, but courses such as introduction to psychology were seen as a threat to summer school enrollments. The result: Emory students were banned from taking it.

“In the end, it’s about power and money,” Neill, who taught a psychology course on drugs and behavior last fall, said. “Everybody’s got intro to psychology. Why would you want your students to take it elsewhere?”

In some cases, the skepticism extended to online courses in general. As universities grappled with the prospect of having their students take fully online courses while living on campus, many reached a compromise, capping the number of online courses they could take each semester or preventing them from enrolling in courses taught by their own professors (with exceptions for students studying abroad or interning).

Other universities eliminated that issue by not letting students participate at all. Wake Forest students “were never envisioned as Semester Online students,” Kersh said. Faculty members at the university could create courses, but students themselves were not able to enroll -- not even in courses taught by professors at other institutions.

“The model couldn’t work,” said Carole Browne, who this spring teaches Wake Forest’s single Semester Online course. “I don’t think that other schools were committed to the concept, for in order for the consortium to work, everyone would have to say, 'We’re part of this consortium.' ”

Online Education Hangover?

In response to the vote at Washington University, Lowry, Wysession and another Semester Online instructor co-wrote an op-ed for Student Life, the university’s independent newspaper. They titled it “Don’t give up on online education.”

“Maybe the three of us just wanted to get something off our chests,” Lowry said. “We worked hard on this.”

The op-ed also communicates a concern shared by administrators and faculty members at partner institutions. In the vacuum left by Semester Online, will anyone make a renewed push for online education?

“This was a huge step backwards, Browne said. “There are two approaches to dealing with a hangover. One is to drink it off, and the other is to abstain for a while. I think abstinence is what we’re going to see.”

While Emory and Northwestern Universities can fall back on their work with the MOOC provider Coursera, the absence of Semester Online will be felt at institutions that don't have several online education initiatives running concurrently.

"Washington University is sort of way behind here, and at this point, I don’t know if it’s something we will be able to catch up with," Wysession said.

Faculty members outside Washington University expressed frustration about not being able to decide for themselves whether Semester Online should keep going. Some said teaching a Semester Online course had turned them into online education believers. Many gushed over 2U’s production facilities and directors. Browne, who has taught since 1980, said her bioethics course is the best course she has ever taught.

“My enthusiasm has nowhere to go now,” Browne said. “I don’t think I had the opportunity to recoup for 2U or for myself the investment that was made in the course. The course was so good. I wanted to offer it to so many students. I wanted so many students to benefit and share the excitement that I had for this course. And that’s not going to happen.”

Chance Patterson, 2U’s senior vice president of communications, said the company has plans to support the platform for a year after Semester Online’s final summer session. Faculty members also own the intellectual property rights, which means recorded lectures could be used in flipped-classroom versions of the courses. But when it comes to editing the lectures and recording new ones, hosting videoconferences and replicating 2U's content management system, many of the institutions are unprepared.

“For me, I’m thinking, can Wake Forest University replicate this kind of experience?” Browne said.

Faculty members at other institutions, however -- and especially those who have taught online before -- were more optimistic. Candy Lee, professor of journalism and integrated marketing communications at Northwestern, said she wouldn’t have traded the business course she taught through Semester Online for any other professional development opportunity.

“It was an experiment, and it was an experiment that succeeded, from my point of view,” Lee said. “Some experiments won’t work, and some will. If this doesn’t work, something in the future which allows us to think deeply about how education will be delivered will occur. Whatever that next step is, we’re a little closer to being ready for it.”

 

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