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Oberlin College is looking to promote itself abroad through an online education program that pairs high school student researchers with faculty members -- though not necessarily their own.

The private liberal arts college announced this week that it had formed a partnership with Pioneer Academics, a start-up that provides college-level online education to high school students. Under the agreement, Oberlin will open its library resources and grant credit to students in the Pioneer Research Program, in which high schoolers are mentored by college professors as they work on research projects.

In 2014, the program enrolled 92 students, who worked with faculty members at institutions such as the California Institute of Technology, Emory University and Vassar College while remaining enrolled at their high schools. Oberlin's agreement with Pioneer extends the benefits to everyone participating in the program. In other words, a student in China working with an instructor at Pomona College could earn credit from Oberlin.

Timothy E. Elgren, dean of Oberlin’s College of Arts and Sciences, participated in the research program in his previous position as professor of chemistry at Hamilton College, mentoring three students. After coming to Oberlin in 2014, he encouraged the college to participate, saying in an interview that it would increase its visibility and access to a liberal arts education to students abroad.

“We’re not in the business of online education, per se, that we want to have our faculty working on course content, but we can have a greater reach,” Elgren said. “We’re starting to explore ways in which we can engage with the world and have students see Oberlin as a place that is reaching out.”

Matthew Jaskol, an entrepreneur who founded Pioneer and now serves as its program director, said the company is helping Oberlin experiment with online education in a way that fits its liberal arts approach of small class sizes and face-to-face interaction between faculty members and students.

“Liberal arts colleges tend to be so focused on trying to have this really high level of interaction between the students and faculty,” Jaskol said in an interview. “In a way, we created that in a research space but let it go beyond the boundaries of Oberlin’s physical space.”

Pioneer launched its research program, which runs either from February to July or June to September, as a pilot in 2012 with four students and two professors. The company is this year expecting up to 220 students, Jaskol said.

Jaskol said his vision for the company was to create an alternative to existing college preparatory work -- much of which revolves around testing -- to students across national and socioeconomic boundaries, as well as give them a credential testifying to their ability to complete college-level work.

For international students in particular, completing the program gives them another way to tell admissions offices they are prepared to study in the U.S. -- especially now that they will be able to show that Oberlin vouches for their work. The partnership is the first of its kind for Pioneer.

The research program doesn’t have a set curriculum. Instead, students indicate a broad area of interest -- biology, English or math, for example -- and are paired in groups of two to four with a professor in that field. During the first half of the program, the faculty member hosts weekly videoconferencing sessions to prepare students and help them narrow the focus of their research topics. The students then work one-on-one with the professor on their project, culminating in a 15-30 page research paper, during the second half.

“This [program] is taking that liberal arts research, that junior-, senior-level experience and bringing it across borders,” Jaskol said. Since the program uses technology to bring education to small groups of students rather than enrolling hundreds or thousands more than can fit in a physical classroom, he said, “it’s a reframing, to some extent, of the way one thinks about online education.”

The program is particularly popular among Chinese students. In the most recent summer session, about 55 percent of students came from China. American students made up about 20 percent of the cohort, with the remaining students coming from Brazil, South Korea and Turkey, as well as countries in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, Jaskol said. Pioneer is officially headquartered in Monroe Township, N.J., but its operational base is located in Beijing.

Students pay $6,355 to participate in the program. Part of that cost goes to Oberlin to cover the cost of the credit and database use. Faculty members are paid for their participation, but Jaskol declined to say how much. Pioneer accepts between 30-40 percent of applicants and grants about 20 percent of students full or close to full scholarships.

Pioneer has granted Oberlin some control over the program to ensure the college only awards credit to students who have earned it. The company’s admissions and faculty vetting processes were both reviewed and approved by a committee of Oberlin faculty members. The college has also set its own standards, such as only granting credit to students who have worked with faculty members with a terminal degree, Jaskol said.

With those protections in place, individual Oberlin faculty members won’t be involved in evaluating work graded by instructors at other colleges, Elgren said. However, faculty members will be involved in reviewing the partnership, he added.

Faculty members reached for comment about their participation in the program did not respond to emails prior to publication.

Students are not expected to continue their studies at Oberlin, but are free to transfer their credit to whatever college is willing to accept it. The three students Elgren mentored while at Hamilton, for example, ended up attending Carnegie Mellon University, Princeton University and Claremont McKenna College (though they all also applied to Hamilton).

“It would be great if they come here,” Elgren said, but added at the program “really is a way of introducing them to what college-level engagement is going to look like and feel like.”

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