Emory is participating in Coursera, a consortium of universities offering free MOOCs or massive open online course. But closer to home, it’s launching Semester Online, which Sterk and Wagner described as “the modern-day version of a semester abroad.”
Launching in a year, Semester Online will offer far smaller classes than MOOCs and likely be limited to students from Emory and other top-tier schools, such as Duke, Northwestern and Tufts. Undergrads will earn credits for their courses, which is not the case with the free MOOCs. Semester Online will cover the same information and be taught by the same faculty at the brick-and-mortar colleges.
And students will pay the same tuition, which surprised me. Isn’t lower costs one of the chief selling points of online classes?
Sterk and Wagner said the start-up costs of these new online courses is high. Wagner said students in Semester Online will be in sections of around 20 students. Classes will include recorded lectures, online readings and real-time interaction with the professor and other students.
He said the online classes broaden the opportunities for study abroad since students sometimes have to bypass locales such as Ghana or Vietnam because they can’t take the requisite courses they need. But now students will be able to travel to remote locales for study abroad and use online courses to fill any gaps. If they need an advanced math course that is not offered at the foreign campus, they can still be in Ghana and take the course online from a Duke or Emory professor.
The Emory folks were quick to say that they are still discussing how Semester Online will work in detail. They described their position on online learning as being “in the pack” rather than leading it since this is such new and unproven territory for universities.
Wagner said universities are learning from the MOOC experiment, including the need to verify. He described how people were enrolling in MOOCs under two different names, taking the course test under one name and, after they got their answer sheets back, retaking the exam under their second name so they could earn a better score. So, now there is a call to verify IP addresses.
“Fair to say, this is one of those things where we are being careful and reflective about what is taking place,” said Sterk. “We are all struggling with the questions. Students are young. They all love technology. They all love social media. They may use it for recreational reasons but it may not translate, so we have to see how it works in the classroom.”
Speaking of students, I asked Wagner about the student protests on his campus last month over elimination of journalism, physical education, educational studies and visual arts programs.
He began his answer with brief soliloquy on the loss of the art and value of compromise. “Compromise becomes synonymous with losing. If I comprised, I lost. You are supposed to find common ground, but comprise is about finding the next highest aspiration. Brilliant compromiser — you don’t hear that right now.”
“Back to this other thing,” he said, “there are groups of students who are very concerned about the fact that anything has to be taken away in order to make something else grow. ”
While some students are upset to lose these four programs, “We feel we have greater opportunity for excellence and distinction elsewhere,” he said.
My AJC colleague Laura Diamond asked Wagner about the U.S. News & World Report ranking controversy in which Emory discovered that admissions staff had misrepresented test data to improve rankings.
Emory intentionally reported inflated information about students’ scores on the SAT and ACT for more than a decade. The college turned this information over to the databases used by publications that rank colleges. Two former admission deans and leadership in the Office of Institutional Research were aware of the misreporting, the investigation found. None of the responsible employees still works at Emory.
The deception began before Wagner arrived at Emory and was revealed when a new admissions took over and realized what had happened. Wagner stressed that Emory discovered the misinformation, immediately reported it last summer and launched an investigation.
He defended Emory’s decision not to publicly name those responsible, saying, “We did lay all the results out there. We refused and continue to refuse to name names. What is the benefit in releasing the names?”
The university has a new data committee in place and is about to announce a new institutional research office to ensure its data are accurate.
The misrepresentation of test data did not change Emory’s rankings in the U.S. News annual listing.
Wagner and Sterk questioned how influential rankings are in which colleges students choose. However, Wagner noted that while American students often look beyond rankings in finding their best college match, the rankings exert a stronger influence over international students.
Wagner said colleges have a love/hate relationship with rankings.”You hate them except when you rank highly.”
We then moved to the issue of financial aid and whether schools like Emory could continue to offer as much need-based aid as they have been now that many more families are seeking aid.
What did Wagner think about merit aid, which often results in giving money to students who don’t need it, asked Diamond.
He said both merit aid and need-based aid are intended “to help us shape a class. The purpose is to get what we think is the right community, a cross section of cultures, religions, races, socioeconomic backgrounds.”
I asked him about The New York Times story on three poor Latino students from Texas whose shared college dreams were dashed, including a young woman who went to Emory but ran into problems with her financial aid, some of which reflected her lack of support in navigating the paperwork and deadlines.
As the Times summarized:
Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.
Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.
As elite colleges open their doors more widely, Wagner said they must make an effort to help low-income students thrive once they arrive on campuses where most of their peers are from upper middle-class households.
He cited Harvard’s program to identify at-risk students and help them persist, which is why, he said, Harvard boasts a completion rate of 98 percent. Emory’s rate is high also at 89 percent. The national college completion rate is 56 percent,
Sterk said the challenge was more than offering programs to help students, but finding ways to get struggling kids to access the help.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog