Semester Online Update

Northwestern University Semester Online Update - Fall 2013

(Please note that material included in this update is for use by Northwestern University’s faculty, staff, and students only.)


Last spring in discussions of Northwestern’s online initiatives with 2U and Coursera, faculty raised several issues. Activities related to these initiatives have continued over the summer. As the new academic year begins, it is appropriate to update the University community on our progress, in general, and on the status of more specific issues that were raised last spring.

The Semester Online (SON) Consortium now consists of eight institutions: Northwestern University, Emory University, Washington University in St. Louis, Boston College, Brandeis University, the University of North Carolina, Notre Dame University, and Wake Forest University.  Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, and Temple University have joined as Affiliated Members; their undergraduate students will have the option of taking approved SON courses for credit toward their degrees. The Affiliate program will allow more students across the nation to take courses offered by SON Consortium schools.

In addition, students from other four-year institutions outside the Consortium may also apply.  All students taking SON courses must have completed at least one term of instruction, consisting of at least four graded courses taken while in residence. Consortium students must be in good academic standing at their institutions and Affiliate member and other students must meet minimum GPA requirements.  Discussions continue with other institutions interested in joining this Consortium, and the faculty comprising the Arts & Sciences Council at Duke University, which was one of the four founding Consortium members, are expected to vote sometime this academic year regarding whether Duke will rejoin the SON Consortium. 

Ten courses are being offered in the current fall term as the SON pilot program, including Integrated Marketing Communications, created and taught by Northwestern faculty member Candy Lee.  Nine students are currently taking this course, and 106 students have enrolled overall in the eight SON courses.  Thirteen students from Northwestern are currently enrolled in these courses.

In the spring, Provost Dan Linzer sent a request for proposals to all faculty to solicit proposals for teaching SON courses. This has resulted in several additional courses that may be taught in upcoming terms.

Two courses have been approved to be offered in the January 2014 SON semester:

  • Electronics Out of the Box, Professor Michael Peshkin, Mechanical Engineering, and Professors Eric Perreault and Matt Tresch, Biomedical Engineering, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

  • Differential Equations for Engineers and Scientists, Bill Kath, Professor of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Another has been approved to be offered during the Summer 2014 term:

  • Game Theory and Information Economics, Jeff Ely, Morrison Professor of Economics, Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

Additionally, another course has been approved by Northwestern for inclusion in future SON terms to be determined. This course has yet to be reviewed and approved by the SON Consortium.
  • Statistical Methods for Physicists and Astronomers, Michael Schmitt, Professor, Physics and Astronomy, Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

Questions and Impacts Update

Item 1: Faculty engagement in the planning, delivery, and assessment of the SON initiative

In the planning phase of the SON initiative, Provost Linzer met with 13 different faculty groups to discuss the initiative and its potential implications for the University. Online education was also a major topic of discussion at several school curriculum and general faculty meetings in 2012-13, and the Provost expects to continue to engage faculty groups on this topic throughout the upcoming academic year. These discussions have been constructive and have helped frame the initial SON consortial agreement.

In September 2012, the Faculty Distance Learning Workgroup was created to advise the Provost on issues relating to the development and implementation of distance learning initiatives at the University; Mary Finn, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Academic Affairs in Weinberg College, was named the inaugural chair.  This workgroup also reviews and recommends approval for all Northwestern SON courses and Coursera MOOCs.  For the 2013-14 academic year, Bill Rogerson, Professor of Economics, will serve as chair of the workgroup.  

A curriculum sub-committee of the workgroup has been formed which will administer the process of soliciting and evaluating course proposals from Northwestern faculty, give input into the SON process of evaluating and approving all SON course offerings, and submit SON proposed courses to Northwestern faculty for them to determine whether and to what extent Northwestern students will receive credit for taking SON courses.  Mary Finn will serve as chair of this subcommittee.  An ad hoc assessment sub-committee will also focus on gathering and analyzing assessment data for the workgroup.

In addition to providing oversight of these curriculum and assessment functions, the entire workgroup will take primary responsibility for learning about the goals and concerns of faculty and students at Northwestern, developing metrics for assessing online courses, overseeing the evaluation and assessment of the first SON courses, and reporting its findings to the Provost, Faculty Senate, and the Northwestern community.  The workgroup will hold a number of faculty forums over the year in order to report ongoing developments to the faculty and solicit faculty input and advice, and will prepare a report summarizing its recommendations and findings that will be available for the entire Northwestern community to read and comment on prior to the point at which Northwestern will decide whether to renew its relationship with SON for another two year period.  

Item 2: Intellectual property implications   

During discussions held last spring, a number of faculty asked about how intellectual property (IP) would be handled for SON courses. Over the spring and summer, consultation with the Office of General Counsel, the Faculty Distance Learning Workgroup, and individual faculty members teaching SON courses has led to further clarification of IP issues for SON online courses:

  1. By contractual agreement with 2U, Northwestern University -- not 2U -- owns copyright in SON-related content developed by its faculty.
  2. Northwestern faculty retain ownership of copyright in SON-related content they author, and the faculty author agrees to license online use of such content to Northwestern University.
  3. Faculty must enter an agreement setting forth this understanding prior to working with the University and 2U to create a SON course.
  4. A faculty member can use content developed for a SON course freely.
  5. Faculty may use the course product (e.g., the produced segments) in his or her other teaching activities for Northwestern, but may not use the course product for a non-Northwestern activity without Northwestern’s prior written consent.

This fall the University will begin a full review of its IP policy, including issues associated with online teaching.  Faculty will be significantly engaged in this review process.

Item 3: Quality issues

3a. SON courses

Since the first SON courses just launched this fall and have not yet been evaluated, questions do exist about the quality of recorded material, the effectiveness of the synchronous (virtual classroom) sessions, student learning outcomes, and faculty and student satisfaction with the online experience. Our experience will help us determine if courses will meet our high standards.  An SON Consortium assessment committee, chaired by Jake Julia (Associate Provost for Academic Initiatives) from Northwestern, has been formed to assess the overall quality of the courses from faculty, student, and technical perspectives. Northwestern’s Faculty Distance Learning Workgroup will also work to independently develop ways to assess quality of courses.

3b. SON students 

Questions have been raised about the qualifications of students taking SON courses, especially those from non-Consortium institutions.  In the fall term, the average GPA of all students enrolled in SON courses was 3.31, while the GPA of students enrolling from non-Consortium schools was 3.34. Twenty-six percent of students who began an application were admitted.  Many students chose not to complete their application after speaking with an admissions counselor about the rigor of the SON program.  Of those who persisted to apply, 79% meet the admission criteria and the average GPA for those students was 3.35.  The SON Consortium faculty assessment plan includes questions relating to faculty perceptions of student quality.  The data gathered will be shared with our faculty ad hoc assessment sub-committee within the Faculty Distance Learning Workgroup.  

3c. Overall quality of online versus on-site courses

The assessment instruments developed for SON courses will ask both faculty and students to compare online and on-site education experiences.  We expect that evaluating student outcomes in online compared to on-site courses will extend to online learning, generally, and not just to SON.  The Faculty Distance Learning Workgroup has indicated that this is an area of interest and focus for its efforts during this academic year.  

Item 4: Counting of SON course credit toward Northwestern graduation requirements

Last year it was anticipated that the SON agreement would allow individual SON members to determine the extent to which individual SON courses would count toward majors, minors, or certificates but that all SON members would be required to allow all individual SON courses to count towards general credit for graduation.   However, based on feedback received from individual SON members, including Northwestern, the Consortium ultimately decided to provide individual SON members with full control over the extent to which individual SON courses would count for credit, either towards majors, minors, or certificates or towards general credit for graduation.  Therefore on a going forward basis, Northwestern will rely on its faculty in relevant departments or programs to determine the extent to which individual SON courses will count for credit towards majors, minor or certificates, or toward general credit for graduation.

The Faculty Distance Learning Workgroup together with the Undergraduate Council will develop a set of procedures governing how these determinations are made.  The intent will be to follow to the extent possible the procedures that are currently used to determine the extent to which non-Northwestern courses are counted for credit, with the exception that these determinations will be made in advance for all SON courses without students having to request that such a determination be made.  

Based on the anticipated terms of the SON agreement, when Northwestern asked its relevant departments last spring to review SON courses to be offered in fall 2013 and spring 2014, it only asked them to determine the extent to which courses would be counted for credit towards majors, minors, or certificates and told them that all SON courses would count towards general credit for graduation.  Students were informed of the department decisions regarding the extent to which courses would be counted for credit towards majors, minors, or certificates and were also told that all SON courses would count towards credit for graduation.  Students have already enrolled in fall 2013 courses and there will not be time to further consult departments in the short time remaining before students enroll in spring 2014 courses.  Therefore credit determinations for SON courses offered in fall 2013 and spring 2014 will remain as previously announced.  In particular, the extent to which SON courses count towards credit for majors, minors or certificates will be determined by the decisions already made by departments and programs.  However, all SON courses offered in fall 2013 and spring 2014 will count towards general credit for graduation.  Beginning with the June 2014 term, individual departments and programs will determine the extent to which individual SON courses taken by Northwestern students count towards credit of any sort, either towards majors, minors, or certificates or towards graduation.  

[Update 10/15/13: For all SON courses offered in spring 2014 and beyond, individual departments and programs will determine the extent to which individual SON courses taken by Northwestern students count towards credit of any sort, either towards majors, minors, or certificates or towards graduation.]

Item 5: Engaging in an academic, for-credit initiative with a for-profit entity such as 2U

Concerns have been raised regarding our work with 2U, a for-profit company, on an academic initiative.  The Consortium provosts comprise the Board of Directors for the SON initiative and retain overall control of all academic decisions that are made. In this governance model, 2U’s role is to provide the technology platform, the technical expertise for course development, the “help desk” for delivering the online courses, infrastructure support, and funding for course production costs.  All academic decisions are made by the Consortium institutions, and all instructional costs and decisions are the responsibility of the universities.

Item 6: Criteria for determining whether to continue participating in the SON initiative after the initial year commitment is fulfilled

Provost Linzer has noted that Northwestern’s first decision point regarding continuing to participate in the SON initiative will be May, 2014.  The Faculty Distance Learning Workgroup will make a report to the Provost before that date, and interested faculty across the University will be invited to discuss the report to consider if this initiative can reach the goals laid out for it, and to determine next steps.

Item 7: Impact of online learning initiatives on faculty hiring and compensation patterns

The impact of online learning initiatives on faculty hiring is an important issue. Concerns have been raised on the potential impact of SON on an increase in the number of adjunct faculty hired as virtual classroom section leaders and on compensation levels for these faculty.  Concerns have also been raised by and on behalf of our continuing lecturer faculty about job security. While it is difficult to predict (or try to control) how the teaching market will evolve, it is worth recognizing that our course contribution to the SON initiative will be at most five courses in the first year.  Should we continue to participate in this initiative, we currently estimate that at most four to six new Northwestern courses would be developed and delivered each year. Though the number of courses we will offer will remain small, it is true that we do not know how attractive the Consortium offerings will be to our students, and what enrollments might be drawn away from courses on campus. It will be prudent for the University’s faculty and academic leadership to monitor any impact on hiring and compensation, and work together to address any problems that are identified.

Some questions were also raised regarding the hiring of section leaders for SON courses. It is assumed that the faculty member developing the course will also teach one of the sections. The school (and the department at the school’s discretion/desire) maintains authority for selecting section leaders for SON courses taught by their faculty in a manner similar to current practices with on-site offered courses.

Item 8: SON Contract

Some concerns were initially raised relating to the desire to not have Northwestern engaged in a long-term commitment with 2U and Consortium universities on the SON initiative.  Based on revisions to the SON agreement, the University is currently committed to the SON initiative for no more than two years.  In spring 2014, Northwestern will decide whether or not to continue as a founding SON Consortium member. If we opt to continue at that time, we will then be committed for another two years, with two year notification required in order to discontinue our participation in the SON initiative.  If we opt not to continue, then we will be committed to offering the courses already developed for the SON initiative for one more year, but will produce no new courses.  

Item 9: Financial Impacts

The financial agreement with 2U and the Consortium includes a revenue sharing formula designed to allocate revenue to cover all expenses incurred by 2U and the Consortium for the provision of courses and for the administrative and financial oversight of these activities within 2U and the Consortium institutions.  2U is responsible for all of the technical costs of course development and delivery, as well as all marketing expenses. Each Consortium institution is responsible for all of the instructional and course content development expenses necessary from each course and sections of courses.  By agreement of the Consortium and 2U, tuition has been set @ $1,400/credit unit, or $4,200 for a semester-equivalent course.