McLaughlin: As year begins, embrace Semester Online, MOOCs

William McLaughlin, Guest Columnist

Last August, a Medill professor welcomed students to the first day of a course called Integrated Marketing Communications. The syllabus was distributed and questions answered. But, for the first time, no students zoned out in the back row. This course was a pilot for Semester Online, a virtual learning platform that could upend traditional curriculum. And though hardly any buzz was made about the courses, more students ought to know about and enroll in them. If I learned anything from Philosophy of Cyberspace with Prof. Peter Ludlow, it’s that we can’t stop the march of technology — we can only embrace it.

Northwestern is a founding member of a team of eight schools offering classes through Semester Online. The platform divides the year into three terms that roughly correspond to Fall Quarter, Winter Quarter and two Summer Sessions for NU students. Courses are normally capped at about 20 students. The upside is somewhat obvious: Students may work toward their graduation requirements while working, studying or living elsewhere. And schools may play to their strengths: Colleges offer classes in their field of expertise, such as Notre Dame’s introductory class on Christianity. It sounds like a simple change in educational content, but such a shift is radical and unprecedented.

I am taking the quarter off to intern. I wanted to take an economics course, although none were offered. But that did not stop me from contacting the program and petitioning my advisor to have a business class count, even though the petition was not accepted in the end. The Semester Online folks were eager to answer my questions.

I believe Semester Online has the power to unshackle students from NU’s campus. Students ought to have freedom to skip quarters without sacrificing a graduation date. The idea that we must be on campus in a classroom to learn is headed out the door. Students will no longer grapple with the dilemma of sacrificing an internship or volunteer opportunity to take a required course. Chicago Field Studies, a program that allows Weinberg students to earn academic credit while interning, is version 1.0 of this idea. But clearly, NU students — with our unforgiving and unsynchronized calendars — are at a disadvantage compared to students at other institutions. And online courses — even for students still on campus — are an incredible idea.

There has been a great deal of press about Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. But though they promote learning for its own sake by not offering credit, their size is unrealistic for the lively discussion of a seminar course. However, for introductory courses, both Semester Online and MOOCs make a great deal of sense because the material is relatively standardized and students must demonstrate a certain level of mastery to pass. We should not have tenured faculty or even graduate students teaching calculus one lecture or class at a time. It’s better to have a virtual class with recorded lectures, explanations of problem sets and office hours when necessary. This approach would free up capital and labor for NU to spend elsewhere.

There is one clear drawback to Semester Online: It’s unclear if or when students are paying attention when logged in. I could potentially open a tab and browse Reddit instead of following along. But in that case, it would perhaps perfectly mirror real life.

Guest columnist William McLaughlin is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at williammclaughlin2013@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, leave a comment or send a letter to the editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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