One Reason to Offer Free Online Courses: Alumni Engagement

January 13, 2015

Conversations about the atomic bomb can go only so far among a classroom of 20-somethings. It’s hard for today’s students to imagine living in 1945, experiencing a world war, or, for most, serving in the military.

But bring alumni—with many more years of experience to share—into the equation, and class discussions can get a lot more interesting.

That’s what Karen Harpp is doing in her Colgate University course "The Advent of the Atomic Bomb."

Next semester she will offer the course for a second time as a MOOC of sorts for Colgate alumni. It is not, strictly speaking, a "massive open online course" because it is not open to the public—only to alumni and others who make special requests to join.

Colgate calls its class, and others like it, "fusion" courses. Kevin Lynch, the university’s chief information officer, said they had been given the name because they are in-person courses for Colgate students with an additional online component that brings in alumni.

The fusion courses are Colgate’s first attempt at free online courses. They gave Colgate’s online courses a specific purpose and also let it test them on a "safer audience," Mr. Lynch said.

For the last 10 years or so, Ms. Harpp has gotten alumni—even a few World War II veterans—involved in her course by having them participate on discussion boards. But with the fusion course, alumni have an even greater influence on the learning environment through new features like a Twitter re-enactment, a timeline project, and videoconference calls.

Online Experiments

Ms. Harpp said she wanted to include alumni because "I don’t think there’s really a good way for a 20-year-old or even a 40-year-old to get a good grip on the issues in 1945." It’s true that "most of the alumni weren’t there" in 1945 either, Ms. Harpp said. But still, she said, "they provide a wide perspective from different ages and from different disciplines."

Colgate began experimenting with enrolling alumni in free online courses last spring, offering "The Advent of the Atomic Bomb" in that format. Then last semester, the university offered another popular course, "Living Writers." This semester it will again offer "The Advent of the Atomic Bomb."

Colgate hoped to enroll 238 students—the atomic mass of uranium—the first time around, but it surpassed that goal with 380 alumni. The "Living Writers" course had 800 online participants, and an estimated 678 of them were alumni. The university doesn’t have an exact figure because that course was also open to the community and to various book clubs, Matt Hames, a spokesman, said in an email.

The fusion courses were free for alumni as the project "was not about revenue," Mr. Lynch said. It was a way for Colgate to experiment with free online courses. But that doesn’t mean the university wouldn’t take donations, Mr. Lynch said, and those types of courses could serve as an indirect approach to fund raising in the future.

Alumni, whom the university specifically sought for the fusion courses, weren’t just asked to throw their support behind a new program. They were asked to actively participate and provide feedback on what Mr. Lynch described as Colgate’s experiment with online courses.

And it was an experiment. When Mr. Lynch and others began their discussions about free online courses, they weren’t sure what they were getting themselves into or whether a liberal-arts education could even translate to that format.

"Can you scale up that kind of an intimate education?" Mr. Lynch asked. "We don’t know, but we’re willing to try and see what happens."

Promising Results

Early results are promising. Colgate officials consider the program a success, Mr. Lynch said, because it exposed students to new perspectives and encouraged faculty members to try new things and re-evaluate their teaching methods.

It also created a new, educational channel for alumni engagement. "We’re great at getting them together for a sporting event, getting them together for drinks in the city, stuff like that, but they’re really looking for some intellectual engagement, and this is an opportunity for us to do that," Mr. Lynch said.

Other universities are trying free online courses as a way to engage alumni. Harvard University began offering such courses to graduates last year. The University of Wisconsin at Madison plans to offer six courses with shared themes of human choices and the changing environment, said Lika Balenovich, a spokeswoman for educational innovation.

But alumni are just one group that the project is trying to reach. The MOOCs, which are part of the university’s Educational Innovation Initiative, are also meant to engage community members.

Though the courses are not exclusively for Wisconsin graduates, the university hopes they will increase alumni engagement, Ms. Balenovich said. The university has a website that lets alumni and others provide feedback, ask questions, or make suggestions for topics they’d like the MOOCs to cover.

The free courses offer a new and convenient way to promote "lifelong learning," Mr. Lynch and Ms. Balenovich said.

Colgate has tried to achieve this in different ways in the past. A program it used to offer, called Summer on the Hill, invited alumni to return to the campus and take courses during the summer. But Mr. Lynch said free online courses had proved to be convenient avenues for continuing education because they allow alumni to learn from home and get exactly what they want.

Generally, Ms. Harpp said, the younger alumni—those who graduated after 2000—were very interested in having access to the course materials but less interested in engaging with the students. Older alumni—those in the Class of 1980 and earlier—were most excited to talk with current Colgate students, challenging them on their thoughts and opinions on nuclear warfare.

Ms. Harpp had one local alumnus and his wife attend the in-person classes, letting them interact with students regularly. Now they want to take the class again, Ms. Harpp said, so they can engage with another round of their younger Colgate counterparts.