Duke, UNC, Wake Forest join forces with others in online education

jstancill@newsobserver.comNovember 15, 2012 

  • Semester Online The 10 universities in the Semester Online consortium: • Brandeis • Duke • Emory • Northwestern • Notre Dame • Rochester • UNC-Chapel Hill • Vanderbilt • Wake Forest • Washington in St. Louis

Three North Carolina universities are joining forces with a national consortium to offer online courses for credit to students at other campuses.

The “Semester Online” venture, announced Thursday, offers students from 10 universities a virtual course catalog of all the campuses. Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and Wake Forest University have joined Semester Online, which is delivered through 2U, a company that already has experience offering online courses and degree programs at highly ranked universities.

Starting in the fall of next year, the program is designed to closely mimic the universities’ face-to-face programs, with most courses taught by the same professors and using the same curriculum from the traditional classroom. The effort will start with a few courses

Semester Online will allow students to take courses that might not be offered at their home campus, or to arrange their schedules so that they accommodate other activities and commitments.

“Undoubtedly there are courses that will be taught by the other institutions that we don’t teach or teach only infrequently,” said Duke Provost Peter Lange. “So those are all real enhancements to the curriculum.”

It’s the latest move by traditional universities to jump into the rapidly developing world of online education.

Duke also has joined Coursera, a consortium of universities offering free web courses to anyone. The so-called massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are noncredit classes. But that could change, and the MOOC trend is being watched closely in higher education. Several Duke MOOC classes are under way or about to launch. A philosophy course that starts this month has more than 100,000 people enrolled.

Semester Online is not massive. Its class enrollments will be capped at 300, with individual sections of about 20 students. Students pay for the courses through regular tuition and receive credit from their home campus.

An experiment

It is meant to be an experiment, not a revolution, Lange said. No student will be required to take a course online, but the opportunity may appeal to students whose schedules are complicated by study abroad or career internships.

“These courses are not going to substitute for most of what we do at Duke,” Lange said. “I mean, 70 percent of our courses or more have 20 or fewer students.”

Online education is nothing new, of course. Most universities have online courses, and some have web-based degree programs. But large scale swaps of students and credit across universities are a more recent development.

Wake Forest has not joined the rush to MOOCs, but Semester Online has focus and seems to be the right fit, said Rogan Kersh, provost.

“We don’t want to do anything that doesn’t feel like Wake Forest. In our case, that’s a traditional model of face-to-face, in-person residential education,” Kersh said. “Wake has always supplemented the education we do with technological advances.”

Semester Online was appealing because it involves a small number of universities and courses, and the schools will be able to control the students who take the classes, Kersh said.

Faculty debate

Faculty have had a lively debate about the issue, he said. The goal is to strategically and selectively use technology in ways that enhance the educational mission, “not tear off after whatever the new, sexy exciting thing is because it’s the new, sexy, exciting thing.”

Earlier this week, Coursera and the American Council on Education announced a project to assess MOOCs to see whether academic credit could or should be given for them. The prospect has elicited skepticism from some in higher education.

“Online education, generally, is one of the two or three most disruptive forces in higher education today,” Kersh said. “There are a lot of opportunities it presents and a lot of challenges it presents.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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