Northwestern announces groundbreaking online courses for undergraduate students


Screenshot: Northwestern University

Through Semester Online, students will watch a live feed of a professor and students participating in the lecture in an interactive split screen. They will be able to see who is in the virtual classroom as well as the materials the professor is presenting.

Cat Zakrzewski, Assistant Campus Editor

Northwestern announced Thursday plans to partner with nine peer institutions to offer a state-of-the-art online curriculum to undergraduates.

Semester Online, the new interactive platform, will offer courses for undergraduates online through a consortium of the nation’s top schools beginning in fall 2013.

“It’s the wave of the future,” University spokesman Bob Rowley said. “It’s going to allow leading universities to share the best of what they do.”

Rowley explained that the technology developed by 2U, Inc., a programming company that has previously created similar platforms for graduate courses, will allow students to interact in real time with both their professor and other students. Rowley explained that students in the virtual classroom will be able to see a live feed of the professor lecturing as well as the other students participating in the class. On the split computer screen, students will also be able to see a chat room window and the material the professor is presenting, such as slides in a PowerPoint.

“You’re in real time, on camera, interacting with fellow students as well as your professors,” Rowley said.

University Provost Dan Linzer led the plans for Semester Online, which Rowley said first began following a meeting between Linzer and provosts from Washington University in St. Louis, Emory University and Duke University. Linzer said working with peer institutions made the program much more feasible than attempting to begin online course programming as a single institution.

In addition to Washington University in St. Louis, Emory and Duke, NU will join Brandeis University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Notre Dame, University of Rochester, Vanderbilt University and Wake Forest University in offering this course programming, according to a University release.

Linzer said because the universities are just now going public with these plans, classes for Semester Online have yet to be designed. However, he said a number of NU faculty members have indicated interest in the program.

“Now that we’re moving in a more public way with this, there will be opportunity to have more specific discussions,” Linzer said.

Rowley said that the consortium plans to start slowly, with only a small number of classes in the beginning. He said they plan to offer more than 30 courses at the launch in a range of subjects from humanities to sciences.

Rowley explained the universities expect thousands of students to participate in the online courses. He said depending on the class, anywhere from 100 to 300 students could register for a course and attend lectures. The students would then also log in for additional seminar-style discussion classes, which would be capped at a maximum of 15 to 20 students, he said.

“This is unique in its small class sizes,” Rowley said.

Rowley explained that small class sizes are just one way that Semester Online will differ to other online education options currently available, such as increasingly popular massive open online courses. Unlike MOOCs, Rowley said these courses will emphasize a level of interaction and discussion and will allow students to gain undergraduate credit. Pricing for the online classes will be comparable to the tuition students pay for traditional courses at NU now. However, he confirmed that the University is continuing to look into MOOC opportunities through websites such as Coursera and Edx.

“This is the first time undergraduates can take rigorous online courses for credit at some leading universities,” Rowley said.

Linzer said there are many logistical problems which still need to be worked out with Semester Online. For example, NU is on the quarter system, while most of the other universities are on a semester schedule, he said.

“You have different systems that you’re going to have to mesh in some way,” Linzer said. “But, we do that all the time with study abroad programs.”

Linzer said he thought many students at NU would respond positively to the new online option.

“It’s a neat time to be a college student,” he said. “You now have more tools to work with.”

NU students have met the news of the program with mixed reviews. Weinberg junior Harmony Lee said she was excited about the news of the program after studying MOOCs on Coursera this summer. She said she is hoping to live in Chicago next year, and taking courses online could lessen her commute.

“I’m excited to see what courses they offer,” Lee said.

But other students did not respond positively to the course’s price. Weinberg sophomore Sasha Lishansky said she liked listening to free courses online but would not pay for an online education.

“If I’m paying this much I’d rather have face-to-face interaction with the intelligent people I’m paying for,” she said. “There’s also less of an incentive to prepare yourself mentally.”

The Chicago Sun-Times published an editorial Thursday praising NU and partnering universities for taking a step toward the future of higher education, even though that future may be uncertain. It noted while many schools already offer online courses, the program will offer classes for-credit, a distinction that — if successful — will set the 10 schools apart.