Semester Online welcomes Trinity College Dublin, University of Melbourne

Washington University students may select among 21 online courses

Semester Online, the online learning consortium of leading universities, announced Wednesday its first international partners — Trinity College Dublin and the University of Melbourne. Wake Forest University, in North Carolina, also recently joined Semester Online, bringing the total number of participating institutions to 10.

“There are a lot of benefits to having these international partners,” said Diana Hill, PhD, assistant dean in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and director at the Semester Online Consortium. “First, there will be opportunities to take courses that are not offered here. Also, our students will have their students as classmates. It’s an opportunity to learn from people who are not just from a different institution, but from a different continent and culture.”

Starting next month, WUSTL students may sign up for one of 21 Semester Online courses. New offerings include “Ireland and Rebellion” from Trinity College; “Classical Mythology” from the University of Melbourne; and “Introduction to Bioethics” from Wake Forest. Other courses include “Drugs and Behavior” from Emory University; “Leading and Managing” from the University of North Carolina; and “The Hebrew Bible: Then and Now” from Brandeis University. Washington University also is expanding its own Semester Online offerings, adding “Introduction to Psychology,” with Brian Carpenter, PhD, an associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, and “Critical Earth Issues” by Michael Wysession, PhD, an associate professor of earth and planetary sciences, also in Arts & Sciences. Bill Lowry, PhD, a professor of political science, in Arts & Sciences, will continue to teach the online version of his popular course “Environmental and Energy Policies.”

Visit Semester Online or the Interdisciplinary Programs section of WUSTL’s online course catalog for a complete list of offerings. Students may register through the WebSTAC system. Semester Online courses are free to WUSTL students. Classes are open to sophomores, juniors and seniors.

“Registering is easy,” Hill said. “The process is no different than registering for classes on campus.”

Semester Online debuted this fall with 11 courses. Unlike MOOCs, or massive open online courses, Semester Online courses are limited to 20 students per section. Each course includes two weekly 80-minute classes, a pre-produced lecture and a live session. The pre-produced asynchronous material often features guest interviews, panel discussions and dramatizations; the live class is for discussion and debate. Political science student Cecelia Joy Perez said the weekly live session looks and feels like a Google Hangout.

“At first it’s kind of a shock because you see everyone up close in this online classroom, but it didn’t take long for me to feel comfortable and to contribute,” said Joy Perez, who took both Lowry’s “Environmental and Energy Policies” and “The Rise of Christianity” from the University of Notre Dame. “The format is engaging. And it’s intense. You are really motivated to keep up with your reading and videos because you are having these discussions.”

Joy Perez did not set out to be a pioneer in online education. She hurt her spine cliff jumping the day before the fall semester and had trouble getting around campus. Her adviser allowed her to take two Semester Online classes; WUSTL students typically are allowed to take one class per semester.

“I’ve told my friends I would definitely recommend it,” said Joy Perez, a junior. “My friends have asked me a lot about the rigor and I’ve told them the classes are really good. Think about it — all of these schools are really competitive. The material we are covering and the quality of professors is really high, and the professors do things you couldn’t do in a regular lecture. Like, Professor Lowry brought in experts from environmental circles. I don’t think every professor could do this, but it seems like they have picked the ones who shine best through the screen.”

Associate Provost Shelley Milligan said only 17 WUSTL students tried Semester Online classes in the fall. She expects that number to grow as more students like Joy Perez share their experiences.

“We live and work in an institution that does this really well on campus, so we assume there can’t be anything that even comes close to matching it,” Milligan said. “The intention is not to replace our residential educational experience. The whole point is to replicate what we do on campus and create something that is high quality, with a high level of interaction and educational value. If it’s not that, none of us are going to want to be involved in it.”

The prospect of more direct interaction with students prompted Carpenter to create a Semester Online version of “Introduction to Psychology,” which typically draws 500 students.

“With that many students, it’s a challenge to get to know the students and the kinds of discussions you have are limited,” said Carpenter, who recently recorded the course’s asynchronous material. “The experience has already forced me to take a step back and think about my big lecture and consider strategic ways for it to be more interactive.”

Milligan said the both the university and Semester Online will start assessing the online educational experience at the close of the fall semester and will continue to monitor the program’s quality throughout the spring. In the meantime, Semester Online continues to recruit top peer institutions and to develop new courses. This summer, for instance, Washington University will offer “Introduction to Computer Science,” by Ron Cytron, PhD, professor of computer science.

“We are going for that balance,” Milligan said. “We want balance across disciplines and our member schools. And we want interesting courses and electives our students can’t get on their home campus. Ultimately, it’s about enriching our students’ learning experience.”