The online game has started to move. Semester Online -- a conglomerate of 10 U.S. universities -- announced Thursday that it would begin offering online, for-credit courses beginning next fall. The caliber of the schools involved -- including three Atlantic Coast Conference peer institutions and a bevy of schools in the East -- and the boldness of the project may make it tempting for the University to join the Semester Online consortium. Yet, given the unforeseen nature of online education and potential drawbacks such as cheating and degree inflation, the University would be wise to maintain its current position as a member of solely Coursera.
The Semester Online initiative should be understood as a counterpoint to the growing trend of massive open online courses (MOOCs). As opposed to MOOCs -- which are free and have no cap on enrollment, drawing upwards of hundreds of thousands of students -- Semester Online will provide classes that are costly, small and require admission. Students already enrolled in one of the 10 universities partnered with Semester Online, including neighboring Duke University and the University of North Carolina, will be able to take online courses at partnering universities for credit without additional costs besides what they pay for tuition. Students not enrolled in one of the partnering schools will have to apply for enrollment in each course at Semester Online. They will also pay approximately the standard rate for a course, about $5,000, although prices are still undecided.
Contra the MOOC -- which is targeted at an international audience and has minimal barriers to entry -- Semester Online brands itself an endeavor for elite institutions. Semester Online says it will not add many partner institutions to the original 10 because it aims to include only schools whose classes are of a similar standard. The universities will give their students credit for classes they take at other participating schools, just like a program abroad -- hence the name Semester Online -- and so the institutions involved have a stake in ensuring the quality of instruction and students is equable.
The University is already a member of Coursera, the leading supplier of MOOCs. But it is in a position -- given its high rankings and at least current accreditation -- to enter Semester Online. Indeed, some schools are members of both this new program and also Coursera: Duke University, Emory University and Vanderbilt University.
Yet the University should resist the peer pressure. At a panel discussion last week about online education, Senior Vice Provost J. Milton Adams and others expressed a number of uncertainties for the University's digital future. How could the honor code be protected online? What is an adequate cost? Can the on-Grounds experience be directly translated? What courses should be put on the web? The promising thing about Coursera is that it's just an experiment -- by giving free courses without any credit, the University maintains a position to increase knowledge and test out online courses without solidifying a long-term commitment. It should proceed to do so until prices and best practices for online education are determined with a measure of certainty.