Boston College is offering two online classes this semester as part of the Semester Online consortium, a group of universities partnering with online education provider 2U.
The consortium includes Brandeis University, Emory University, Northwestern University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Notre Dame, and Washington University in St. Louis. Students enrolled at the consortium schools may take any of the 11 courses offered at no additional cost beyond regular tuition.
“Semester Online is part of a three-pronged strategy that the University developed last year, to explore the potential and impact of technology on the academic experience,” said Donald Hafner, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs in an email.
BC is offering two courses this semester: How to Rule the World, a political science class taught by Robert Bartlett, and Vietnam: America’s War at Home and Abroad, a history class taught by Seth Jacobs. Each class offered as part of the consortium is limited to 20 students.
“When we began working with Semester Online and the member institutions, there was a shared sense that each institution should contribute courses that have been successful on campus already, that are taught by some of our most respected faculty, and that could translate well to an online format,” said Anita Tien, Chief of Staff of the Office of the Provost, in an email.
Each course is divided into two sections. Students watch 80 minutes of prerecorded lectures at any time during the week, and then participate in a live discussion group via webcam on Thursdays.
BC students are encouraged to sign up for classes not offered on campus already. Students who take either of BC’s two offerings on campus will also have access to the online course materials.
Bartlett calls his class, How to Rule the World, a sort of Great Books course in political theory.
“Our central question is, what is grand political ambition?” he said. “What kind of an education does it require?”
Bartlett said his class translated easily into the digital world.
“For the most part, what happens is, I’ll read things, I’ll lecture, I’ll ask questions, and then the video stops and the student has to type in some response before the video continues,” he said. These responses are not graded, but they do offer some sense of interactivity and exchange, he said.
The biggest change to Bartlett’s class was the opportunity to have a panel discussion with two of his former students who happened to live in the Washington, D.C. area, where the lectures were filmed, about the Platonic dialogues.
Jacobs’s class, however, underwent a more radical transformation.
While Bartlett said that he had to cut some material from his class, Jacobs said that the online format allowed him to add more readings and more visual aids to his course.
“The most wonderful thing about Semester Online for me was that they essentially gave me carte blanche,” he said. “I could use whatever I wanted.”
In the first lecture of the course, Jacobs asks his students to consider how they learned what they know about Vietnam and says that they probably learned most of it through pop culture references, not high school courses. With the help of 2U’s tech team, Jacobs put together about a minute and a half of clips from Forrest Gump, Apocalypse Now, newsreels showing the Black Panthers and hippies doing drugs, and other images of what people might jump to when they think of the Vietnam War.
“Those images are not entirely incorrect, but they are definitely incomplete,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs, who uses some videos in his class to illustrate points of view or personalities that are better shown than explained, said that he considered it ironic to be involved in the Semester Online project because of his generally traditional approach to teaching.
“For me there is something very special that occurs when you’re actually looking at the people that you’re teaching and there are actual, physical people in a discrete, bounded space that are studying your particular subject,” he said. “That’s something you just can’t replicate online, no matter how sophisticated your equipment is.”
Despite some difficulties getting used to teaching to a camera instead of a group of students, he said the final lecture series turned out better than he initially thought it might.
For Hafner, BC’s first foray into online learning opens the door to new experiences for students as well as professors.
“This collaboration in online courses offers the possibility of expanding the curriculum we might offer students,” he said. “For instance, there might be too few students on any one of our campuses to support advanced courses in a rare language, but by pulling students from many campuses together online, such courses might be feasible.”
A successful first year of online classes, Hafner said, will yield more information on the online learning experiences of both professors and students and how well students learn through online classes.
The deadline for fall courses has passed, but Tien said that BC and the rest of the member universities have already submitted course proposals. Students interested in applying for a spring course can request more information at semesteronline.org and must obtain the signature of their academic dean.