Online education — the Wake Forest way

Deacon Blog


Last month The New York Times declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” the year universities wanted in on the game-changing movement toward massive open online courses. The Times called MOOCs an evolving form that combines education, entertainment and social networking. “Traditional courses charge tuition, carry credit and limit enrollment to a few dozen to ensure interaction with instructors,” Laura Pappano of the Times wrote. “The MOOC, on the other hand, is usually free, credit-less and, well, massive.” (Here marks the historic moment that helped define the higher education disruption: More than 150,000 people signed up to take Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun’s class “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.”)

The Times piece appeared two weeks before Wake Forest alumni received a letter from Provost Rogan Kersh and Dean of the College Jacque Fetrow announcing that Wake Forest had joined a “Semester Online” consortium of elite colleges and universities exploring whether and how to offer undergraduate students the opportunity to take online courses for credit from members of the consortium. The group includes Brandeis, Duke, Emory, Northwestern, UNC Chapel Hill, Notre Dame, the University of Rochester, Vanderbilt and Washington University in St. Louis. The company engaged as a partner that would develop an interactive platform is 2U, which Forbes named this year along with Zappos, Instagram and Airbnb as one of 10 visionary startups to admire and model.

I sat down with the provost last week to determine whether Wake Forest had joined the stampede toward MOOCs. Not at all. The provosts are working together to shape the online platform. No one has signed up yet to offer courses, Provost Kersh said. The 2U website says the company expects the first cohort of students to begin classes in fall 2013, but it is unclear when Wake Forest would begin offering courses. “The danger will be if people assume this is done. We have not been asked to sign an agreement to join yet, and we will be back to the faculty discussing this in a committee of the whole before any decision is made,” Kersh said.

Provost Kersh earlier this year

What follows are excerpts from his answers to my questions about the direction of online education at Wake Forest.

Q: MOOCs are all the rage. How is this different?

Kersh: MOOCs are all the rage. There are certainly ways I can imagine a MOOC-style course helping to supplement a student’s learning, especially about some kind of esoteric subject. But it doesn’t fit with a residential, face-to-face, grounded model of a Wake Forest education that 40 million students are taking the same course offered from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, A to Z.

The appeal of Semester Online is it’s a much more curated, focused, bounded, specific, online offering. Wake is never going to tear off after online anything because it’s the sexy, exciting thing to do. We don’t just tear off after things for their own sake. I think what we are good at is figuring out in what way do technological innovations of all kinds supplement, fit into, help to buttress the traditional Wake Forest model of education. We have a deep, abiding commitment to liberal arts, face-to-face residential as the central model. If at the edges we can provide laptops for every student, start Mac labs — when I was here in 1984 Wake Forest had one of the first Mac labs for students to go use to type our papers in the country. We’ve often been at or towards the forefront of using technology in ways that supplement our basic mission and values, and this feels like another example. Semester Online felt like the best example of an opportunity to explore what online looks like. But this is not a MOOC. I would be very surprised if Wake Forest students were getting credit for any MOOC in the near or distant future.

Q: Explain Semester Online and whether it is a definite plan for the University.

Kersh: Semester Online has evolved and continues to evolve, so any snapshot in time is going to be ambiguous. The idea here is to get a consortium of highly ranked (colleges and universities). Each will offer no more than three — or perhaps as few as one — online courses but not in a MOOC massively open online version but in the size that these institutions are accustomed to offering. …

The general idea is this tightly defined consortium will offer a collective set of courses, the first users of whom will be those university students under very specific circumstances, not students on campus taking a full load at the time but students who are overseas for a semester. In Wake Forest’s case (a student in) one of our language houses who might need a biology course or an art course to stay on track for a degree. A student who has an amazing internship for the summer and is far away and would like to take one of these Semester Online courses during the summer or for that matter has the internship of their dreams and can stay for the fall semester and continue on toward their degree using Semester Online courses.

Wake would still maintain control if it’s another school’s course or if it’s a Wake online course. Just as when I was a student here, I took a Catholic University course/experience in the British Parliament, for example, and I had an adviser here who looked at what I did and gave me credit for it. We’d still maintain that type of control. …

The other group of students who can take these courses will be at what are called affiliate universities — a larger band of elite, highly ranked universities who would like their students to have access to the courses but who will not be invited to offer courses themselves. The consortium will be closed for schools that can offer courses. A larger band of students (from affiliate schools) will be enabled to apply for admission to take courses but (their schools) will not be offering the courses. A Wake Forest faculty member who wishes to offer a Semester Online course, if we decide to join as a collective body, (could have in the online class) students presumably from Wake Forest; a big chunk of the students will be from consortium schools; and there may be students from affiliate schools as well. Those are the rings of the Planet Saturn that is Semester Online.

Q: How would the Semester Online program, if we go forward with it, avoid diluting the kind of experience we have with small class sizes, mentoring and a sense of community on campus?

Kersh: This would be a supplement designed to provide a version of the Wake Forest experience to students who are not currently on campus, who, again, are pursuing an internship of their dreams, who are away for a semester or a summer, who are ill and can’t physically be at Wake Forest.

That’s the way I think of the supplemental nature of Semester Online. Not replacing one-for-one students’ on-campus experience and outside the classroom with faculty and that kind of mentorship and connection. This is not a replacement. It is the supplement at the edges. …

The consortium right now exists as a group of elite schools’ provosts communicating with each other about what this program could look like as we begin to shape it. There are no actual schools signed up to offer courses as of yet. We had this wonderful chance to get in on the ground floor both to understand the online world more and to understand how online education fits into other elite schools’ missions and values. That helps inform our conversation.

This really is a brave new world or a bad new world; we just don’t know yet. Anyone who says: “I know exactly the future of online education at American colleges and universities” is smoking something I don’t want any of. No one knows what the revenue is like. A handful of faculty have made serious money off MOOCs, but no university has figured it out as part of the business model. We are not thinking of Semester Online principally, secondarily or even tertiarily as a source of revenue. That may happen down the road — that would be nice — but we’re much more focused on what our student demand might be for this kind of support, and (for) faculty who might want to put a toe in this area, this is a useful opportunity to do so.


About the Author

Maria Henson (’82), a Pulitzer Prize winner and a 1994 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, worked at newspapers until 2009. After living in Botswana, she returned to the Reynolda Campus to oversee the Wake Forest Magazine, teach and share the notable tales of Demon Deacons.

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