Online Classroom for Alumni Launches

AlumniU looks to extend the University’s educational experience beyond graduation.

By Greg Ross

AlumniU, the University’s experimental online education initiative, was officially launched on September 21. While several hundred participants have taken courses on AlumniU’s pilot program over the past year, this month’s official launch hopes to bring more alumni on board.

Consisting of courses led by UChicago faculty of various disciplines, AlumniU aims to offer alumni the UChicago academic experience via its online platform. AlumniU is headed by the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies, in conjunction with Alumni Relations and Development. 

“There was a significant amount of alumni who were interested in some kind of academic experience that could replicate in some small way the experience that they had here at the U of C,” said Mark Nemec, Dean of the Graham School.

In addition to courses, the platform offers discussion forums for users to connect and discuss University news.

“One of the critical things is that [AlumniU] is meant to be an experiment in digital alumni engagement,” Nemec said. “It’s not about credentialing; it’s not simply about courses; it’s not an exercise in nostalgia.”

Online education is nothing new—UChicago faculty have taught online courses in the past, and many other universities have made forays into online education. Wide-reaching websites like Coursera and EdX offer lectures and coursework to subscribers. MIT OpenCourseware, a 15-year-old platform, offers thousands of free, recorded lectures to the public. AlumniU, however, is unique in that it only allows UChicago grads to access the site. 

The restriction to alumni appealed to Daniel Burnham (A.M. ’14) who works for an online education startup. “While [AlumniU] has very similar hallmarks to these giant course providers, the membership is highly curated. I wanted to see what courses were like when you could exclusively guarantee a certain type of user,” he said.

Last spring, Burnham took Critical Issues in Urban Education, a pilot AlumniU course taught by professor Sara Ray Stoelinga, who is director of the Urban Education Institute and a clinical professor on the Committee on Education. The course consisted of weekly blog posts by Stoelinga, to which participants would respond during the week and discuss in live Q&A sessions.

Leah Rutchick (A.M. ’81, Ph.D. ’91) took professor Peggy Mason’s Neuroethics course last winter. “I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with people who shared something in common,” Rutchick said, noting that her classmates not only shared a UChicago background, but many also worked in fields related to neuroscience.

AlumniU is not intended to “export the classroom,” but rather to “rekindle what is unique about UChicago inquiry,” Nemec said. Nemec also emphasized the broader picture: with people living longer lifespans and having access to an ever-expanding sphere of technology, platforms like AlumniU will become more popular. “To be a leading university, I would argue that you need a robust lifelong learning strategy,” he said.  

While AlumniU is a new, tech-driven approach to alumni engagement, it also reaffirms the value the University has placed on lifelong learning. The University Extension—a department created at the outset of the University’s founding—was one of the country’s first continuing education programs. At the time, educators delivered lectures aboard Pullman train cars as they chugged across the country.

In the 1930s, Robert Maynard Hutchins’s presidency pushed the College to embrace perennial education, a belief that students should be instilled with that values that are timeless, human, and principled. This theme of knowledge for the sake of knowledge remains evident in today’s Core and is now embraced by AlumniU.

This fall, professor Agnes Callard, an assistant professor in the philosophy department, will teach Plato’s Meno on AlumniU. “I’m doing it on the expectation that it will be a lot like doing a discussion class in Hum,” said Callard. The six-week course will involve a weekly “virtual classroom” in which participants interact via video. 

This this does not mean AlumniU will necessarily replicate the give-and-take of a UChicago classroom. “It’s amazingly hard to talk to a computer,” Callard said. Pulling out her laptop, she signaled to a smiley face sketched on a post-it note. It was taped just above the webcam, supposed to imitate the student with whom she would normally engage in a discussion of the meaning of virtue, but is now behind a screen, and perhaps on the other side of the world. 

To access AlumniU, all that is needed is a CNetID and password. The platform is free. Callard’s course begins Monday, October 3.