Emory launches inaugural Semester Online courses

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Sep. 16, 2013

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Emory professors (from left to right) Darryl Neill, Bill Gruber and Gary Laderman will be teaching Semester Online courses. Emory Photo/Video.

For the first time, Emory University is offering online, for-credit courses this fall through Semester Online — among an inaugural line-up of classes now available through a national consortium of top American universities.  

Emory's Semester Online classes have already proven to be among the program's most popular offerings for the pilot session, including:  

A third Emory course will be added to Semester Online offerings in the spring semester: "History of Religions in America," taught by Gary Laderman, professor of American Religious History and Cultures and chair of the Department of Religion.  

More than 100 students have enrolled in Semester Online's initial term, according to 2U spokesman Chance Patterson.  

Semester Online is designed to offer a flexible, academically rigorous, learning experience, featuring live class sessions, self-paced course materials, and a social network that encourages student collaboration and conversation, says Joanne Brzinski, Emory College senior associate dean for undergraduate education.  

Unlike other online learning models, Semester Online allows students from anywhere in the world to earn real college credits, charges tuition, has a selective admissions process, and presents classes in a live small-group setting, she says.  

The program is offered in collaboration with 2U, a leader in online educational technology, and a consortium of seven top-tier American universities: Boston College, Brandeis University, Emory University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Notre Dame, Northwestern University, and Washington University in St. Louis.  

"We are extremely excited about our partnership with 2U and the other member schools," says Robin Forman, dean of the Emory College of Arts and Sciences.  

"The Semester Online program is providing new opportunities for both faculty and students to extend the impact of their work beyond the traditional boundaries," Forman adds.  

"Moreover, the opportunities created by this endeavor allow us to imagine new answers to the important questions about how we best make use of the time our students spend in residence on our campus to create the most impactful, engaging, rewarding undergraduate education possible."  

Behold, the virtual classroom  

When Emory English professor Bill Gruber learned that there would be opportunities to teach through Semester Online, he was immediately intrigued.  

"I know that universities are increasingly interested in developing this aspect of their curriculum and thought it would be a wonderful thing," says Gruber, who describes himself as "semi-retired" these days.

This fall, he's joined Semester Online to teach two sections of his perpetually popular course, "Baseball and American Culture," a class that routinely results in waiting lists when he's offered it at Emory.

This time, he's teaching students scattered around the country from a home base in Moscow, Idaho. His podium? A laptop computer that displays the faces of each online student in a Brady-Bunch-style grid that expands each time someone enters the virtual classroom.

The software allows Gruber to confer privately online with individuals; students can also chat with each other, raise a virtual hand to ask a question, watch video clips and download documents as they arise during discussions.

In some respects, "it moves much more quickly" than teaching in a conventional brick-and-mortar classroom, he acknowledges, noting other subtle differences.

"It's impossible for students to disengage," Gruber observes. "As a teacher in a physical classroom, it's not always easy to tell who is paying attention and who isn't. Here, it's very easy — the faces are right in front of you, so you can track the level of engagement a lot more easily."

Though this marks his first foray into online teaching, Gruber enjoys the challenge: "When you don't have the physical time with students, you work all the harder to make sure the course provides the kind of intellectual experience they have the right to expect.

"Each session begins with a little tinkering, but once everyone joins the room, it proceeds very smoothly," he says. "Our discussions have been spirited, lively and sometimes intimate — just as good as more traditional seminar settings. "

Semester Online also permits him to incorporate video interviews — recorded last spring — with guests who wouldn't necessarily be able to join a physical classroom, including Yale head baseball coach John Stuper, who also played for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds.

Each online class is limited to about 20 students per section. Some are non-traditional scholars, working full-time or trying to raise a family, he says.  

About a quarter of his class are Emory students, though they are not typically encouraged to sign up for Semester Online courses taught by Emory faculty if the class could be attended on campus. Because Gruber is based in Idaho this term, that's not an issue.  

A fresh take on teaching, learning

Despite a few initial technical bumps, Emory psychology professor Darryl Neill has been impressed by the possibilities — and support — the Semester Online format has offered.  

"I now have all these lectures recorded, and people at 2U took my slides and PowerPoints and upgraded them, with new artwork and graphs that highlight material as I'm talking about it," says Neill. "At some point, I could see merging online and (conventional) classroom versions of the course."  

So far, Neill says he's enjoying the new marriage of teaching and technology: "I've been teaching this class for over 40 years, but this is something totally different. It enables you to approach the material in a different way, try things you've never done before."  

Nenad Tadic, an Emory senior majoring in political science, is among the first wave of students to enroll in Semester Online this term. With a full class schedule, jobs on and off campus, and an internship, he was drawn to the flexibility of an online class.  

From the comfort of his off-campus living room, Tadic settles in with his laptop every Wednesday night to take "Leading and Managing," a course offered through the University of North Carolina.  

Emory students were offered 10 course topics ranging from Shakespeare and film to environmental policy taught by faculty at peer universities. In the coming weeks, a larger set of spring courses will be announced, complementing those offered this fall, says Patterson.  

"I was intrigued by the topic and the flexibility," Tadic says. "I don't think the instruction is at all compromised, but there is more emphasis on self-study and self-motivation. You're not babysat, no one is proctoring you."  

Before starting the class, Tadic took advantage of an online orientation, which helped. When class begins, he turns on his webcam and dials in on his cellphone, listening in through headphones.  

2U technicians monitor the virtual classrooms, jumping in if a technical need arises. "They'll send you a message if your webcam goes down or there is an issue with the professor's wi-fi connection, which can happen," he says.  

All told, the experience hasn't been too different from a conventional classroom: "Your syllabus, the grade breakdown, class participation, calendar, quizzes – it all is pretty similar," Tadic says.  

"The fact is, everyone is very bright and really wants to be there," he adds. "And the flexibility is awesome. It's definitely something I'd recommend to other students."  

Information about Semester Online courses and the application process is available at semesteronline.org.