After discontinuing Semester Online, Northwestern alters online education goals

Cat Zakrzewski, Reporter

After its first experiment in for-credit online courses for undergraduates failed, Northwestern is now shifting its focus to developing Web courses for its graduate programs and building up its Massive Open Online Courses.

Jake Julia, associate provost for academic initiatives, said the University is assessing the for-credit Semester Online pilot program that was called off earlier this month.

(Northwestern, consortium terminate online course-for-credit program)

“Now we can really look into this,” said Julia, noting the program was a success in sparking a “critical dialogue” about online learning.

Few NU students participated in the online courses; thirteen students took courses in the fall. University registrar Jaci Casazza was not able to provide an exact number of students enrolled in winter Semester Online courses as of Tuesday evening, but she said enrollment decreased for winter courses and fewer than a dozen students enrolled. The pilot program that launched last year will come to an end after the summer semester, for which students can still register.

The semester-based program poses a possible deterrent from enrollment for NU students on the quarter system. Because the courses are offered on the semester system, they do not start and begin when NU’s courses do. For example, students enrolling in Semester Online courses for the summer will have to begin their courses on June 9, the same day exams for Spring Quarter classes begin.

Julia said he didn’t think the semester issue was an “insurmountable” problem for the consortium schools, but he said it was one of the issues that arose from multiple complex institutions collaborating. Semester Online courses were offered through a consortium of 10 universities. Students at three affiliate partner schools were also eligible to take the courses.

Students also expressed skepticism at the program’s announcement when they learned Semester Online courses would cost tuition like courses offered on campus in Evanston. Duke University, Vanderbilt University and University of Rochester were originally members of the consortium but pulled out prior to the launch of classes.

Cynthia Cyrus, Vanderbilt’s associate provost for undergraduate education and digital learning, said Semester Online was incompatible with financial aid packages.

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

Julia said there was critical debate among NU faculty about the effectiveness of the courses. He said the University continues to analyze the pilot courses from the fall and those being offered now. He said it is currently unclear if it was more successful in some disciplines than in others.

Julia said NU will continue to add to its growing list of MOOCs offered through the digital platform Coursera. In the fall, the University drew more than 68,000 students to its first three offerings. NU launched two more courses in engaging audiences and environmental assessment in January. In March, a McCormick professor began a course in digital image and video processing.

These MOOC courses offered through Coursera differ from Semester Online in that they are noncredit and do not cost tuition. Enrollment is also open to everyone, unlike Semester Online, which required students to attend a consortium or affiliate school or apply.

NU’s School of Continuing Studies offers online accredited courses. Students using the programs can earn master’s degrees in global health, information systems, medical informatics, predictive analytics, public policy and administration and Medill Integrated Marketing Communications. The school additionally offers a variety of certificate programs. Julia said any future partnerships with external providers would likely be focused on expanding offerings in master’s degrees.

Although the Semester Online termination marked the end of for-credit options for undergraduate students for now, professors are increasingly using online components in their courses for undergraduates on campus, Julia said.

“I would say overall I hope that what we learn from this pilot program will enhance our offerings,” Julia said.

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