The online course pool Semester Online is growing again after Wake Forest University this month decided to join ed-tech company 2U’s consortium. With a fall pilot that attracted only 100 students and six course-providing universities, some participating institutions are waiting for results before they commit more resources to the effort.
Announced last year, Semester Online intends to give students the flexibility to keep up with their studies while traveling abroad, working an internship or taking on some other responsibility that would prevent them from attending class. Alternatively, as the pool of courses grows, students can enroll in courses not offered at their university. The fall pilot began last month, giving students access to courses that resemble a cross between traditional classrooms and massive open online courses: While students are free to access course materials on their own time, their class also “meets” regularly for live video conferences. 2U sets the cost parameters per course, which generally do not offer any significant savings over face-to-face courses.
The decision to join the Semester Online effort has followed divisive debates on campuses between faculty members skeptical of its ability to improve academic outcomes and those eager to experiment. Wake Forest was no exception, said Carole Browne, professor of biology.
“There are people who feel that we shouldn’t be doing online education just because other people are doing online education,” Browne said.
After a series of forums held in 2012, Wake Forest’s faculty gave the administration permission to sign a non-binding memorandum of understanding with 2U. The university then agreed to lend its name to Semester Online’s public launch, even though it would remain on the fence for months before officially joining the consortium two weeks ago .
During the months leading up to that decision, Wake Forest worked to establish exactly what Semester Online was, but a significant part of winning over the faculty involved communicating what the effort wasn’t.
“It was clear that Semester Online had to be closer to Wake Forest than MOOC-land,” said Rogan Kersh, provost of the university. “We were not going to be MOOC U.”
A Faculty Decision
Semester Online’s launch has not been without setbacks. Three institutions backed out this spring , including Duke University, where faculty members narrowly voted to leave the consortium . The move was seen as a rebuke against Duke’s administration for keeping faculty in the dark, although some think that lingering faculty resentment over Duke's activities in China led to the distrust that was evident in faculty deliberations.
In comparison, Adam Friedman, associate professor of social science education at Wake Forest, described the university's approach as one defined by “transparency [and] openness.” Friedman headed the committee on online education tasked with researching Semester Online and recommending a course of action to the faculty.
“My general rule for technology as an educator is: Will the technology allow you to do something that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise?” Friedman said. “That was the bottom line.”
As part of the research, Browne, the biology professor, agreed to take a 2U course over the summer. A newcomer to online education, Browne said the experience she gained -- and then shared with the rest of the faculty -- could change her teaching altogether.
“If you take the appropriate measures to get to know your students before going into the online course, you can establish a rapport with them,” Browne said. “I think that helped reassure people that this Semester Online experience was not a MOOC.”
Instead of “massive” and “open,” 2U describes the courses as “small” and “rigorous.” Since the courses substitute classroom time for video conferencing, they enroll tens -- not tens of thousands -- of students.
Faculty members sought to reassure themselves that the Semester Online courses would not supplant traditional face-to-face courses over time, Browne said. A policy specific to the university means students -- unless studying abroad -- will not be able to enroll in Semester Online courses taught by their own professors.
Another important selling point was the lack of coercion. Browne volunteered -- as will any professor who wishes to create a Semester Online course.
“No one is going to be forced into doing this,” said Friedman. “People would know what they’re getting into.”
Friedman credited Browne's testimonial for reassuring faculty members that the courses wouldn't become too time-consuming or unwieldy. Instead of doomsday prophecies, Friedman said the culminating discussions about Semester Online were dominated by curiosity.
When faculty members cast their ballots two weeks ago, the vote was much less polarized than at other institutions. Those voting in favor of joining the Semester Online consortium outnumbered those voting against by about a two-to-one margin. Had the vote been any closer, Kersh said administrators would have tabled the decision to seek more feedback.
“This was a faculty decision,” Kersh said. “We’ll give it a whirl and see where it goes. We not only will learn about the Semester Online program; we’ll learn more about what it means to put some subset of Wake Forest’s education online in a way that will radiate back through our institution.”
The faculty members who opposed joining the consortium were defined more by their uncertainty than their outrage. "There weren’t really people standing up saying, 'No, no no! We shouldn’t do this!'" one professor said.
Beyond the Pilot
This fall, Semester Online’s scope is limited. About 100 students are taking the courses as part of the pilot, with class sizes ranging from the single digits to about 30. Since 2U takes a percentage of what students pay to enroll in the courses, the low enrollment has raised questions about Semester Online’s ability to sustain itself.
Enrollment was hurt by cases like Washington University in St. Louis, where students were unable to sign up for Semester Online courses until July -- about three months after fall registration.
“Our students typically register in April, and we at that point did not have all our ducks in a row,” said Roddy Roediger, professor of psychology. “We didn’t know what courses would be offered.”
When registration opened, students didn’t flock to Emory University’s “Baseball and American Culture” or Boston College’s “How to Rule the World,” but to a course taught by a popular professor at the university. The course is capped at 100 students, which meant students could take the Semester Online version to escape the waitlist.
“I was kind of surprised that some of the courses that looked so interesting to me didn’t do better,” Roediger said. “It will be curious to see what happens in the future. I really think we got to students after they picked their courses. I think we just got to them too late.”
Enrollment figures don’t have to stray far from their goals before Semester Online becomes a losing venture for participating institutions. Kersh said the Wake Forest’s projections show it will break even or make a slight profit by the end of its two-year engagement with the consortium. The profit is earmarked for on-campus instruction, Kersh said.
“I don’t think anybody at Wake Forest imagines that this is first and foremost... a moneymaking venture,” Kersh said. “We see it as an opportunity to learn how this tool can supplement what we can do.”
Since the fall pilot is less than one month old, 2U and university officials say it is too early to gauge the effort’s success.
“A pilot is a pilot,” said Chance Patterson, senior vice president of communications for 2U.
Semester Online is set to announce its spring course lineup next week, and officials earlier this year confirmed they were engaged in talks with about 20 universities to increase both the number of students and the range of courses in the pool. In addition to Wake Forest, Semester Online’s partners include Boston College, Brandeis University, Emory University, Northwestern University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Notre Dame, and Washington University. Students at a number of other affiliated universities can take the courses, but their institutions do not supply Semester Online courses of their own.
Wake Forest’s first and initially sole contribution to the course pool will be an introductory bioethics course taught by Browne that is set to debut next spring. The university expects to produce a total of six to eight courses  in the future, according to an FAQ.
“I think that right now we didn’t want to go overboard and go off the high dive into online higher education,” Browne said. “We want to wade into the water, make sure we do it right, and feel our way toward what’s going to be right for our students."