Digital Discovery: the classroom

Author: Julie Hail Flory

Notre Dame has long touted the notion that its classroom is the world. Change “world” to “World Wide Web” and it gets a bit more complicated.

Just how, when and even whether to make Notre Dame courses available online has been a topic of consideration through the years, even more so with the advent of MOOCs — massive open online courses — and as a growing number of elite schools plunge into cyber-learning.

This fall, Notre Dame will participate in Semester Online (, a new consortium of top universities offering online, for-credit undergraduate courses.

The consortium, which includes Boston College, Emory, Northwestern, North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Washington University, will offer 11 courses this fall, including two taught by Notre Dame faculty — Shakespeare and Film by Peter Holland, McMeel Family Professor in Shakespeare Studies, and The Rise of Christianity by Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and early Christianity. While both courses represent the humanities, the University aims to offer classes from a range of disciplines soon.

In many ways, Semester Online courses will function like regular courses. Classes meet for 80-minute live, online sessions once a week on a video platform that allows students to see each other and their professor, and to interact one-on-one or in discussion groups. Coursework, which may incorporate recorded guest lectures, readings, quizzes and written papers, is completed on the students’ own time.

Semester Online is not a MOOC because its courses are neither massive nor open. Students must be enrolled in an accredited institution, apply and meet selective standards in order to be admitted. All courses are for-credit only, and at a cost commensurate with the individual institution’s tuition rates, with each school determining its own policies. Notre Dame students may enroll in courses taught by Notre Dame faculty at no additional cost, and the University will subsidize half the tuition for classes offered by other schools.

Online courses may lack the intangibles of being on a college campus — especially one like Notre Dame’s — but can play an important role in the overall undergraduate experience, says Elliott Visconsi, associate professor of English and Notre Dame’s newly appointed chief academic digital officer.

“When located within a comprehensive digital strategy, online learning can expand the mission, research, and teaching goals of the University without eroding the cherished bond between faculty and students at the heart of the Notre Dame experience,” he wrote in a letter to faculty. “Online learning cannot and should not replace that bond. Quality online programs, however, can expand our digital footprint and give our students engaging new options in their intellectual formation.”

Visconsi says online learning allows students to expand their academic reach by creating opportunities to take courses not offered at Notre Dame, keep in touch with faculty and classmates while traveling overseas, and broaden their studies.

“Human relationships have increasingly moved online, especially for our students,” Professor Moss says. “Nothing will replace the on-campus university experience, but it is thrilling to see how educators can utilize this technology.”