Semester Online A Good Start, But Not Far Enough

A few months ago, I took my case for Northwestern to increase their course offerings to the pages of this paper. Shortly thereafter, Northwestern released the news that they were joining a consortium of schools in offering online content to students of those member schools, which include Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill.

Was it chance, or did my article influence something? Undoubtedly, it was the former. That said, I figure it can’t hurt to hope it was the latter and try this again. So, here goes:

After Northwestern unveiled their participation in Semester Online, I waited patiently in anticipation of further steps. I was figuring the announcement that anticipating that the time was near when Northwestern would announce that we had also joined Coursera, or another online provider that enables anyone, regardless of whether or not they’re a student at a particular university, to access course content. They didn’t.

This is an important concern. For reasons that I outlined in my last article, allowing students—of any age or gender—to take courses from some of Northwestern’s excellent professors has a wide range of positive externalities for lifelong learning, for educational democratization and equity. The biggest draw of the new drive towards offering online courses from major universities is not that brand recognition will improve, or that we can now take classes with students at Vanderbilt or Notre Dame. Rather, it’s that such moves can bring down the cost of college. It’s that this type of movement can help empower and educate people anywhere, anytime.

So, what is Northwestern waiting for? While I’m excited about Semester Online—I’m hoping to take an online class from a different school before I graduate—it’s simply not the same. Semester Online is great for us students of the included schools. But these students are all already high achieving students who have been accepted into excellent schools—what about those in different countries, those who aren’t of college age? Strict restrictions still exist in terms of the number of people who can take these rigorous, challenging courses that have the potential to open up new worlds of understanding. In that sense, Northwestern has hardly joined the revolution in higher education at all.

We have the opportunity to make people across the world into Wildcats. Let’s take it.

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