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The Deacon Blog

A magazine staff blog with news of alumni and the WFU community

Maria Henson

Online education — the Wake Forest way

Last month The New York Times declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” the year universities wanted in on the game-changing movement toward massive open online courses. The Times called MOOCs an evolving form that combines education, entertainment and social networking. “Traditional courses charge tuition, carry credit and limit enrollment to a few dozen to ensure interaction with instructors,” Laura Pappano of the Times wrote. “The MOOC, on the other hand, is usually free, credit-less and, well, massive.” (Here marks the historic moment that helped define the higher education disruption: More than 150,000 people signed up to take Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun’s class “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.”)

The Times piece appeared two weeks before Wake Forest alumni received a letter from Provost Rogan Kersh and Dean of the College Jacque Fetrow announcing that Wake Forest had joined a “Semester Online” consortium of elite colleges and universities exploring whether and how to offer undergraduate students the opportunity to take online courses for credit from members of the consortium. The group includes Brandeis, Duke, Emory, Northwestern, UNC Chapel Hill, Notre Dame, the University of Rochester, Vanderbilt and Washington University in St. Louis. The company engaged as a partner that would develop an interactive platform is 2U, which Forbes named this year along with Zappos, Instagram and Airbnb as one of 10 visionary startups to admire and model.

I sat down with the provost last week to determine whether Wake Forest had joined the stampede toward MOOCs. Not at all. The provosts are working together to shape the online platform. No one has signed up yet to offer courses, Provost Kersh said. The 2U website says the company expects the first cohort of students to begin classes in fall 2013, but it is unclear when Wake Forest would begin offering courses. “The danger will be if people assume this is done. We have not been asked to sign an agreement to join yet, and we will be back to the faculty discussing this in a committee of the whole before any decision is made,” Kersh said.

Provost Kersh earlier this year

What follows are excerpts from his answers to my questions about the direction of online education at Wake Forest.

Q: MOOCs are all the rage. How is this different?

Kersh: MOOCs are all the rage. There are certainly ways I can imagine a MOOC-style course helping to supplement a student’s learning, especially about some kind of esoteric subject. But it doesn’t fit with a residential, face-to-face, grounded model of a Wake Forest education that 40 million students are taking the same course offered from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, A to Z.

The appeal of Semester Online is it’s a much more curated, focused, bounded, specific, online offering. Wake is never going to tear off after online anything because it’s the sexy, exciting thing to do. We don’t just tear off after things for their own sake. I think what we are good at is figuring out in what way do technological innovations of all kinds supplement, fit into, help to buttress the traditional Wake Forest model of education. We have a deep, abiding commitment to liberal arts, face-to-face residential as the central model. If at the edges we can provide laptops for every student, start Mac labs — when I was here in 1984 Wake Forest had one of the first Mac labs for students to go use to type our papers in the country. We’ve often been at or towards the forefront of using technology in ways that supplement our basic mission and values, and this feels like another example. Semester Online felt like the best example of an opportunity to explore what online looks like. But this is not a MOOC. I would be very surprised if Wake Forest students were getting credit for any MOOC in the near or distant future.

Q: Explain Semester Online and whether it is a definite plan for the University.

Kersh: Semester Online has evolved and continues to evolve, so any snapshot in time is going to be ambiguous. The idea here is to get a consortium of highly ranked (colleges and universities). Each will offer no more than three — or perhaps as few as one — online courses but not in a MOOC massively open online version but in the size that these institutions are accustomed to offering. …

The general idea is this tightly defined consortium will offer a collective set of courses, the first users of whom will be those university students under very specific circumstances, not students on campus taking a full load at the time but students who are overseas for a semester. In Wake Forest’s case (a student in) one of our language houses who might need a biology course or an art course to stay on track for a degree. A student who has an amazing internship for the summer and is far away and would like to take one of these Semester Online courses during the summer or for that matter has the internship of their dreams and can stay for the fall semester and continue on toward their degree using Semester Online courses.

Wake would still maintain control if it’s another school’s course or if it’s a Wake online course. Just as when I was a student here, I took a Catholic University course/experience in the British Parliament, for example, and I had an adviser here who looked at what I did and gave me credit for it. We’d still maintain that type of control. …

The other group of students who can take these courses will be at what are called affiliate universities — a larger band of elite, highly ranked universities who would like their students to have access to the courses but who will not be invited to offer courses themselves. The consortium will be closed for schools that can offer courses. A larger band of students (from affiliate schools) will be enabled to apply for admission to take courses but (their schools) will not be offering the courses. A Wake Forest faculty member who wishes to offer a Semester Online course, if we decide to join as a collective body, (could have in the online class) students presumably from Wake Forest; a big chunk of the students will be from consortium schools; and there may be students from affiliate schools as well. Those are the rings of the Planet Saturn that is Semester Online.

Q: How would the Semester Online program, if we go forward with it, avoid diluting the kind of experience we have with small class sizes, mentoring and a sense of community on campus?

Kersh: This would be a supplement designed to provide a version of the Wake Forest experience to students who are not currently on campus, who, again, are pursuing an internship of their dreams, who are away for a semester or a summer, who are ill and can’t physically be at Wake Forest.

That’s the way I think of the supplemental nature of Semester Online. Not replacing one-for-one students’ on-campus experience and outside the classroom with faculty and that kind of mentorship and connection. This is not a replacement. It is the supplement at the edges. …

The consortium right now exists as a group of elite schools’ provosts communicating with each other about what this program could look like as we begin to shape it. There are no actual schools signed up to offer courses as of yet. We had this wonderful chance to get in on the ground floor both to understand the online world more and to understand how online education fits into other elite schools’ missions and values. That helps inform our conversation.

This really is a brave new world or a bad new world; we just don’t know yet. Anyone who says: “I know exactly the future of online education at American colleges and universities” is smoking something I don’t want any of. No one knows what the revenue is like. A handful of faculty have made serious money off MOOCs, but no university has figured it out as part of the business model. We are not thinking of Semester Online principally, secondarily or even tertiarily as a source of revenue. That may happen down the road — that would be nice — but we’re much more focused on what our student demand might be for this kind of support, and (for) faculty who might want to put a toe in this area, this is a useful opportunity to do so.

Notre Dame vs. Deacs? Good answer.

Having grown up with Tobacco Road sports rivalries fueling childhood memories, at first I didn’t believe the news this week that yet another school in a distant land beyond Tobacco Road was joining the ACC. Once I got past the shock of hearing that the University of Notre Dame would become an ACC member in all sports except football, I remembered Connor Swarbrick (’11).

Connor Swarbrick ('11) bleeds black and gold

Swarbrick was a top-notch student in the first journalism class I taught at Wake Forest in the fall of 2010. That first week he had an answer when I asked whether anyone had had “journalism done to them or a family member.” Yes, he knew what I was talking about. Connor’s father is Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s vice president/director of athletics. The news conference Wednesday about the Irish’s departure from the Big East featured Jack Swarbrick in a starring role.

The dad's announcement

I tracked Connor down at the Wasserman Media Group, where he worked in the golf division in Raleigh until moving a few months ago to the Los Angeles office. I asked him in an email which team he would pull for when the new rivalry heats up. The former Old Gold and Black sports writer had this to say:

“I always have and always will root for the Deacs. Wake Forest is my alma mater and I’m extremely proud of that. But the best part about it  – I can’t lose. It was great fun when Wake Forest hosted Notre Dame last fall (for the record I wore a green shirt with WF inside a clover and a “Beat ND” button on my lapel) and I can’t wait to travel to see the two teams play again this fall in South Bend. It is fantastic that the friendly rivalry will continue with the announcement yesterday. Now I just need some bragging rights….”

Connor Swarbrick, as he frequently did in my journalism class, had the right answer.

James Beshara (’08) and Crowdtilt are worth watching

Crowdtilt, the San Francisco-based company co-founded by James Beshara (’08), is one of CNN Money’s crowdfunding sites to watch and has been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle. Now the September issue of Fast Company magazine counts Crowdtilt among the “niche crowdfunders” mimicking the Kickstarter model.

James Beshara as a Wake Forest senior

Fast Company says, “Other platforms exist to cast a wide net in search of funding. Crowdtilt narrows the focus to take the risk and stress out of coordinating collective purchases – think party buses, tailgates, and group vacations.” Launched in February, the company “skews young; predictably, the site has been well received by circles of friends in, or right out of college.” Other sites mentioned in Fast Company’s “Crowding Around” article include Fundly, Appbackr and Petridish.

Beshara, who arrived from Dallas as an undergraduate, flashed a memorable entrepreneurial streak at Wake Forest. He worked with Sylvain Boko, an economics professor, to create the Dvelo Fund to finance student trips to developing countries. His Crowdtilt company allows people collectively to “group fund anything,” from a PHISH party bus in D.C., to an urban community garden to neighborhood pothole repair.  If the campaign is successful, the company takes 2.5 percent of the amount raised, nothing if it fails. Crowdtilt.com’s website describes Beshara’s aspirations this way: “He studied development economics in undergrad and hopes that Crowdtilt will eventually be used by people to change the world –- but for now, he’ll take what he can get, so late-night parties and tailgates are ok too.”

With angel investors and venture capitalists lined up behind him and the other co-founder, Khaled Hussein, the odds of success, for now, appear to be tilting in the young entrepreneurs’ favor.

Lawyer and activist Jeannetta Craigwell-Graham (’06) on Rwanda’s lessons

Last month Wake Forest Magazine received an email from Jeannetta Craigwell-Graham (’06), an alumna reclaiming her Pro Humanitate spirit.

Craigwell-Graham had just spent two months in Africa, and the memories of her experience gathering information for an indictment against a war criminal persisted, leaving her profoundly changed by Africa and with a need to make sense of how the assignment fits with her personal history.

She wrote to us, “I am a transactional attorney by practice and felt more comfortable negotiating a loan transaction than with traditional forms of advocacy. I saw no connection with what I was currently doing with pursuing justice under mantras of international criminal law. However, I was reminded of the spirit of giving back that I wholeheartedly adopted at Wake Forest and took a big leap in faith and potentially a few steps back in my current career.”

Craigwell-Graham is an associate at Shearman and Sterling LLP, a prominent law firm in New York City that advises on major deals across the globe, most recently the financing of a $3.7 billion Egyptian oil refinery project and the sale in which Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway next week will acquire all but one of Media General’s newspapers, including the Winston-Salem Journal. With her juris doctor from Boston University, she is living the life of an associate in a blue-chip law firm, busy, running from meeting to meeting and steeped in a corporate culture. But one of the aspects that drew her to the firm was the opportunity for pro bono work. Since 2000 the firm has provided legal assistance to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. As an international post-conflict organization, this United Nations’-established tribunal has been prosecuting persons responsible for genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994.

“I put myself on the list right away,” Craigwell-Graham told me about her reaction when an internal law firm message went out seeking volunteers to assist the ICTR in Arusha, Tazania, for a month in 2012. “Even when I was at Wake I volunteered and always felt like my purpose in life was going to be to help others.”

She and I met at The National restaurant in Manhattan a few weeks ago. Like so many young professionals, she felt the weight of early-career demands. “I felt like I was getting lost,” she told me, “disconnected from the person I was and the person I am now.” As she said in the email, she wanted to share her experience, hoping it “might inspire others in my situation to find ways to reach out to their immediate community and communities very far away.”

Growing up as the child of a psychologist father and a social-worker mother, Craigwell-Graham lived all over the country but finished high school in Goldsboro, N.C. “From a young age, my mom and dad insisted on giving back.” Part of her inspiration was her mother, who arrived as an immigrant from Barbados and worked to seize every opportunity. At Wake Forest Craigwell-Graham became a political science major with a concentration in Asian studies, Japanese language and literature. She traveled to Japan to study and to Moscow on a service-learning trip.

“I was probably what you call a joiner because I did everything,” she said. She headed Project Launch, a Volunteer Service Corps. program, served as a President’s Aide, volunteered in an AIDS hospice program and started a community service program to raise HIV-AIDS awareness in Winston-Salem’s minority communities. “Wake Forest taught me to use your creativity, use your innovation, use your drive, use your skills to do something,” she said.

Africa reminded her of her “joiner” path. Her law firm allowed her to extend the one-month pro bono work to two months. She started in Arusha with the tribunal and traveled to Rwanda with other lawyers for a week to gather statements about a massacre in a church. The accused is a fugitive, but Craigwell-Graham said the material for the indictment will one day be useful: “The idea is they will find him, and he will be transferred to Rwanda.”

Two months on the ground in Africa gave her a taste of what is possible and a reminder of what mattered to her at Wake Forest. She came back to New York, where her colleagues told her, “You seem so relaxed.” She was. “Relationships and people. That’s what matters,” she told me.

She’s energized to direct her energy “doing projects in places I care about, which is Africa.” She hopes to offer support to others like her, who might feel lost hammering away at career-building. She doesn’t want her classmates from 2006 to forget the spirit of Pro Humanitate — “the important lessons that Wake Forest instilled in every student that passed through its gates.” She carries those lessons more tenderly than ever.