Shifts in Semester Online participants raise concerns over cost, quality

Semester Online, a new online for-credit education platform, incorporates weekly video conferences with classmates and individual assignments.

Source: Northwestern University screenshot

Semester Online, a new online for-credit education platform, incorporates weekly video conferences with classmates and individual assignments.

Lauren Caruba, In Focus Editor

As the registration deadlines near for taking the new for-credit Semester Online classes, concerns over cost and educational value have provoked shifts among participating universities.

Since it was rolled out in November, the group of Semester Online schools shrank from the 10 initial participating schools to seven. Including Northwestern, six universities will offer 11 courses this fall. Applications for the classes are due May 24.

Duke University recently opted out of the new online platform based on a faculty council vote in late April. Vanderbilt University and the University of Rochester also pulled out earlier this year, and several other schools remain on the fence.

In its decision, the Duke council cited numerous issues, including a lack of control over curriculum, educational quality and little interaction with students. Duke officials could not be reached for comment.

Vanderbilt is instead pursuing other online platforms like Coursera, a massive open online course provider. Vanderbilt recently passed the 200,000 mark for students taking its Coursera offerings, Cyrus said. The University of Rochester has also chosen Coursera over Semester Online’s for-credit classes. NU will participate in both platforms.

Besides NU, University of Notre Dame, Emory University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brandeis University and Washington University in St. Louis remain in the consortium. Boston College, not originally included, is now offering two courses, while NU will offer an integrated marketing communications class.

The fluidity of the consortium’s makeup has not fazed NU officials.

“We’re watching it, we’re aware, but I don’t know if concern is the right word,” said Jake Julia, associate provost of academic initiative.

Julia said changes within the consortium do not diminish its potential. Many NU faculty members have expressed interest in engaging with the platform, he said.

“More than anything, there’s just an excitement about giving us an opportunity to innovate,” Julia said.

The courses cost $4,200 each and include individual assignments and weekly video interactions with professors and classmates. The price has put off some schools, including Vanderbilt.

Cynthia Cyrus, the school’s associate provost for undergraduate education, said Semester Online was incompatible with financial aid packages.

“It’s definitely a for-profit venture,” Cyrus said.

Students like SESP junior Kristina Nolte also expressed concern about cost.

“To have it cost the same as a regular class seems kind of ridiculous,” she said.

Nolte, who teaches high school students through Peer Health Exchange, said she was also concerned about diminished face-to-face interaction.

“It’s super, super important for learning at any level to have someone you can engage with,” she said.

Some universities are still exploring their options.

Brandeis’ contract has not been finalized, but the school plans to participate in the spring semester, Brandeis spokeswoman Ellen de Graffenreid said in a statement to The Daily. Wake Forest University, an original member of the consortium, is still evaluating the opportunity.

Jennifer Collins, Wake Forest’s associate provost for academic initiatives, said faculty prize a “very personalized, very meaningful face-to-face educational experience” that may not be conveyed effectively online.

“It’s a new venture,” Collins said. “You want to make sure that anything that you start that would be this different would add value to our students.”

NU officials have said they are unsure about the level of student interest will be in the classes or how students will incorporate the semester classes into NU’s quarter system.

Despite the issues raised by other schools, Julia said NU will ultimately make its own independent decisions.

“Northwestern is really a leader in this area,” Julia said. “We feel we need to do what’s in Northwestern’s interest basically going forward.”