Semester Online Launches Courses

For the first time, Emory students can take classes while traveling abroad, continue coursework while at home for a few months and learn from professors at other institutions.

The College is offering 11 Semester Online courses this semester from schools like Boston College, the University of Notre Dame and Washington University in St. Louis, among others.

Unlike massive open online courses (MOOCs), Semester Online — a program developed by the educational technology company 2U — offers for-credit courses that can satisfy General Education Requirements (GERs) and major requirements if approved by the appropriate department.

Though the cost of taking a course, with prices ranging from $4,200 to $5,600, differs from the free cost of a MOOC, Semester Online don’t suffer the 10 to 20 percent retention rates of their not-for-credit counterparts.

“There’s a big difference,” Andrew Hermalyn, executive vice president and general manager of Semester Online, said of the disparity between MOOCs — which frequently serves up to 45,000 students — and 2U’s new program.

“We’re focusing on small class sizes of up to 20 students. There’s also the live class components, so there’s no ‘back row.'”

While traditional classroom formats often consist of a teacher speaking to up to 200 students all facing the front of the room — sometimes scarcely interacting — Semester Online features what Semester Online professors refer to as a “Brady Bunch” theme-reminiscent group video chat for its weekly live sessions.

“Having a live class experience is critical,” said Hermalyn, who helped found Semester Online two years ago. “You develop a relationship with students from other schools. Semester Online is even giving students the ability to take courses with their high school friends.”

Emory’s Goodrich C. White Professor of Psychology Darryl Neill said his in-person course, Drugs and Behavior, seats a maximum of 200 students. In his Semester Online course of the same name, he can connect with all 20 students one-on-one.

“I see a headshot of everyone all at once,” Neill said. “A blue line appears when they start talking, and they can electronically raise their hands.”

Neill, who has taught at Emory for 43 years, sent his Drugs and Behavior PowerPoint presentations to 2U last winter. With the help of tech specialists, he constructed 15-minute lectures. Slideshows with graphics illustrate his talking points as he discusses them in each video recording.

“In some ways, it’s better than the traditional lecture,” Neill said.

Some of his presentations feature interviews with a psychiatrist colleague at Columbia University.

“We got along well, and I told him I wanted stories,” he said. “Some of the stories about the patients he had are pretty wild.”

Jessica Christian, an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, also uses guest speakers.

“Students get to watch interviews with managers on class topics, and actors can even act out scenarios,” Christian said of her course Leading and Managing: An Introduction to Organizational Behavior.

Semester Online also offers some of the country’s most popular college courses, according to Robert Bartlett, the Behrakis Professor of Hellenic Political Studies at Boston College.

“The strongest teachers are encouraged to develop these courses,” Bartlett said.

His Semester Online course, How to Rule the World, examines the leadership of some of history’s most famous politicians, namely “a Persian emperor, an American president, a king of the Hebrew Bible, a Shakespearean king and Machiavelli, the teacher of princes.”

“It’s a kind of cross-pollination,” Bartlett said of Semester Online. “You’re exposed to people you may not otherwise meet.”

Semester Online’s consortium of participating schools currently includes Emory, Boston College, Brandeis, Northwestern, UNC Chapel Hill, Notre Dame and Wash. U.

“We were really looking for high-quality institutions with an intellectual aggressiveness that believe in new models of learning and in experimenting,” Hermalyn said. “We want to be selective. We will expand, but not by much.” He added that Semester Online will announce new member additions this fall.

Duke University dropped the program in April after already signing a contract with 2U. Though Duke Provost Peter Lange declined to comment on the matter, he told The New York Times in a May article that “as late as early March, there was no generalized opposition to our joining Semester Online. But when the proposal was circulated in March, some people who’d not heard of it before, or paid sufficient attention, got concerned.” Lange resigned in June.

While Hermalyn suggested that Duke’s faculty needed more time to evaluate the opportunity, Emory College Dean Robin Forman said Duke’s faculty “were less concerned about the program than the process of the program being created.” According to Forman, Emory has no intention of pulling out.

“We’re trying to extend the amazing work our faculty do in the classroom, enhance awareness of Emory and even generate revenue,” Forman said. “It’s an opportunity for us to learn what it’s possible to do with this technology. Every aspect of this is a work in progress.”

Though Semester Online and digital courses in general are forecast to grow — or become ubiquitous — Emory students may only take one per semester and six total, unless under special circumstances.

“Emory College will always be a residential experience,” Forman said. “These online courses are never going to replace the on-campus experience.”

Hermalyn agrees, adding that none of the schools involved allow students to take an entire year online.

Still, he said Semester Online has the potential to grow.

Semester Online launched its first 11 courses last week and will have 13 new courses by spring 2014. By spring 2015, Semester Online expects to have 45 courses.

— By Lydia O’Neal 

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