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Online College Course Consortium Collapses

Washington University's Brookings Hall
Washington University

After failing to make the grade with professors at Washington University, Semester Online is going offline for good.

The consortium was designed to let students at Washington U. and other schools in the group — universities such as Emory, Northwestern and Notre Dame — take online courses in areas that their home school does not offer. It began this school year, and the universities and Semester Online’s parent company, 2U, had high hopes that it could be a pioneer for online learning.

But only 17 students signed up at Washington U. for Semester Online courses in the fall, with 54 altogether for the year. This week, results of a vote by faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences showed 130 were against continuing the university’s membership in the program, with 116 in favor.

After the results of the vote were announced, Semester Online released a statement saying that the program was going to be abandoned after the summer session.

“Semester Online was always an experiment,” the statement read. “The pilot program experienced significant challenges related to the complexities of a consortium structure.

“However, the experience was informative and helped 2U develop its instructional model for the undergraduate population, which 2U will apply to the forthcoming online undergraduate degree program in nursing with Simmons College. 2U values the relationships created by this pilot program and the innovative leaders that drove it at the institutional level.”

Michael Sherberg, a professor of Italian at Washington U. and chair of the department of Romance languages, had no direct experience with teaching a course online. But he was part of a curriculum committee that made policy decisions on how Semester Online would operate on the campus.

“There were general concerns about the value of online education,” he said in an interview Friday, “and certainly there were concerns about the extent to which these online courses would draw students out of our regular home-based courses, that we would lose students from our classrooms because they were taking online courses instead.”

Still, he said, he was surprised that the vote to continue the program failed.

“I expected it to pass,” he said. “I expected a lot of my colleagues would feel there was no harm in continuing the experience for a few years.”

But Washington U. Provost Holden Thorp said in an interview that part of the problem with Semester Online was the number of schools involved and their varying academic policies on academic credit, faculty approval and what courses could be offered online.

Provost Holden Thorp
Credit Washington University
Holden Thorp

“Multiply that out by all of the schools in the consortium,” Thorp said, “and it was very hard to figure out a consistent set of marketing strategies, credit policies and course offerings that would satisfy a very complicated equation.

“Some of the issues that led to the vote here were going on at the other schools, too, and everybody decided that the consortium introduced so much complexity that it was very hard to figure out how to put all of this together.”

But he also didn’t think the experiment would end so soon.

“I think everybody thought that this was so positive, these other things would work themselves out,” he said. “There was a lot of optimism.”

Cautious beginning

Washington U. began its entry into the world of online courses slowly, by design. Former Provost Edward Macias, who was in charge of the school’s venture, told the St. Louis Beacon last year that students in St. Louis who wanted to take courses in areas that weren’t available on their home campus would have the opportunity to expand their learning opportunities. One example often cited was the history of baseball, taught from Emory.

And, he said, the university planned to assess whether students gained as much from an online experience as they did from the more traditional face-to-face interaction with professors in the classroom.

Macias said faculty members who were teaching Semester Online courses were getting acclimated to the online environment, and the software provided by 2U – kind of a Hollywood Squares arrangement, where all of the students appeared in small boxes on the screen so they could see and interact with each other – helped simulate a more traditional classroom.

But troubles popped up quickly for the consortium.

Last April, faculty members at Duke University voted to drop out of the program, citing concerns about a lack of control over the courses to be offered and little advance information about the program itself.

Sherberg said the questions raised at Washington U. were similar. He said professors also were concerned about becoming involved with 2U, a for-profit company. Details of the university’s contract with 2U were available only to professors who were willing to sign a confidentiality agreement, he said.

Credit Washington University website
Michael Sherberg

While he understood why the university might have to agree to such an arrangement, Sherberg said it still bothered many members of the faculty.

“Those of us who were watching this more closely were kind of curious about 2U and our relationship to 2U,” he said.

“I know these are extremely expensive programs to get going, and we were being told this was advantageous to us because someone else was gong to spend the money to get the courses going.”

Thorp, the university provost, said it was difficult for a for-profit company that was negotiating with a number of universities to be transparent without sacrificing advantages that would be good for its business. That need for confidentiality, he acknowledged, hurt the consortium’s chances for success at Washington U.

“There were definitely faculty member who were concerned about that,” he said, “and the level of control that academic leaders would have over the business relationship.”

As for 2U, Thorp said, “this was a business project for them, and the business was harder than they thought it was going to be.”

But while its Semester Online experiment is ending, 2U appears to be attracting more positive attention from the financial community. A Wall Street Journal story noted that the company’s recent IPO has impressed potential investors, even though it posted a loss of $28 million last year on increased revenue of $83.1 million.

Going forward with online courses

Does the demise of Semester Online mean the end of online courses at Washington U.? Thorp said that the future of online education isn’t likely to mean the end of traditional campus classrooms, as some had feared in recent years, and the university isn’t abandoning online altogether.

To the question of whether students can learn online as well as they do in a classroom, he said “the answer to that is a resounding yes.”

He noted that University College, which teaches evening courses, has several offerings being taught online, and other segments of the university also are continuing to experiment.

Other groups of universities that are offering so-called MOOCs – massive open online courses – continue to do well, though their offerings typically do not bring the college credit that those in Semester Online did. Thorp said he wouldn’t rule out Washington U. possibly getting involved with efforts like Coursera or EdX.

“The audience for those courses are mostly people who already have a college degree and want to learn something new,” Thorp said. “They are lifelong learners. They don’t require you to get into the details of enrollment, course selection and all of that.

“If you look at who is taking and completing those classes, a lot of suspicion people originally had of MOOCs is going away. If anything, it is an endorsement of undergraduate education.”

But, he emphasized, any future involvement by Washington U. in online education would go forward only with full involvement of the faculty. He said the Semester Online experience is a strong affirmation of the commitment to professors’ role in the governance of Washington U.

Even if the faculty vote had been close but had been positive, he said, the university probably would have ended its participation in Semester Online.

“We still would have had the same issues to deal with,” Thorp said. “I’m perfectly pleased with the engagement that we have had with the faculty.”

For Sherberg, the professor of Italian, any future venture into online education holds little appeal.

“New technologies are driving a lot of what we do,” he acknowledged. “But I think we kind of rushed into this headlong without having an opportunity to talk more broadly about online education and what to do about it.

“I have no interest in teaching an online course, quite frankly. I love the magic of the classroom, and I think that students belong in the classroom.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.