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University experiments with online classes

EMMA BORNE | Wednesday, November 20, 2013


As DARTing season begins, Notre Dame students have even more class choices than before, thanks to the new option of online courses.  

Elliott Visconsi, chief of digital affairs and professor of English and law, has worked to bring the option of online courses to Notre Dame. Visconsi said the University decided in April 2013 to join respected schools, such as Boston College, Washington University and Northwestern, in offering classes through a program called “Semester Online.”

“The reason that we’re in Semester Online is so that we can experiment, we can learn, we can understand how Notre Dame students inhabit online courses, how these kinds of courses and this style of learning fits into the Notre Dame experience,” Visconsi said. 

Visconsi said Semester Online works the same way as regular courses. He said students can DART into the online courses Notre Dame offers, or they can receive permission from their advisors to take classes taught by professors at one of the other schools in the consortium, receiving transfer credit. 

Senior Katie Dickerson said she currently is taking an online course called “Drugs and Behavior” offered through Emory University. Dickerson said the class is not as different from traditional classes as she initially expected. 

“The nice thing about how these classes work is that you still have to ‘go to class.’ Once a week you log in with a webcam – your professor and classmates do the same – and you have lecture and discussion like you would in a normal classroom,” Dickerson said. “The work you do outside of class will depend on the type of class it is. … [For my class,] instead of a book, we have recorded video lectures from our professor.” 

Visconsi said the biggest challenge for the faculty has been learning to create a course in a new context.  

“When you have a seminar-style class discussion in this format, you have to come up with a different set of strategies. … The energy is different, the kind of questions that you need to ask of students are different,” Visconsi said. “Creating a good online course means you have to take an existing course and be inventive, make it born digital, create it anew for this platform.”

Dickerson said she has had a great experience and would take an online course again, but it can be hard to connect with the professor, especially when he is located in a different part of the country. She said it can also be challenging to manage time when taking a class that relies heavily on independent work. 

Visconsi said online learning is like any other kind of unconventional education. 

“Think about all these projects. There was a time when study abroad was not acceptable, or the idea that you would go downtown and work at the homeless shelter and get college credit for that [was] not acceptable,” Visconsi said. “And then people started to pilot and experiment and say, there might actually be a way of adding another way of experience.”

Dickerson said she believes online education will only add to the Notre Dame experience. 

“Notre Dame strives to improve education and innovate in all areas. Online education is going to be increasingly relevant in coming years, and it only makes sense that [the University] would be working to make that happen,” Dickerson said. 

Notre Dame will offer one online course in the spring, “Shakespeare and Film,” taught by Professor Peter Holland. More information about Semester Online is available at online-education.nd.edu

Contact Emma Borne at [email protected]