New website connects alumni, provides access to online courses

University of Chicago alumni have a new place to take online courses led by University faculty, connect and collaborate with other graduates, and find curated content from across UChicago. Billed as a site for intellectual inquiry, discussion and engagement, AlumniU launched Sept. 21 and is free and open exclusively to University alumni.

“Our alumni are interested in content that is intellectually stimulating and of the highest quality,” said Mark Nemec, dean of the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. “We’ve learned what people miss after graduating is opportunities for the rigorous engagement they had while at the University of Chicago.”

The road to the launch of AlumniU started more than a year ago, when President Robert J. Zimmer asked Nemec’s team to work with Alumni Relations and Development to create a digital hub that would allow alumni to connect to the University and each other.

“Our alumni are interested in content that is intellectually stimulating and of the highest quality. We’ve learned what people miss after graduating is opportunities for the rigorous engagement they had while at the University of Chicago. Mark Nemec, dean of the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies

In the summer of 2015, nearly 1,000 alumni participated in a pilot online course on law and technology taught by Prof. Randy Picker, and another 600 signed up for a course by Prof. Peggy Mason on ethics and neuroscience in January 2016. Participants watched videos of lectures, read suggested articles on the topic, participated in discussions and connected in weekly video discussion—a variation on the popular massive open online courses taught by Picker and Mason.

“It really was a lot of fun,” said Mason, who organized her course around a series of knotty ethical questions. “These were very accomplished people, very intellectually curious. I learned a ton working with them. Some had a beautiful way of putting things and insights into questions that I hadn’t had.”

Alumni in the class were graduates from a range of divisions and schools. Mary Byrne, AM’77, an associate professor at the School of Social Work at Salem State University, said she took Mason’s course, in part to dig deeper into new findings in neuroscience—a topic she hadn’t been looking to explore but matched well with her work.

“I liked the ability to dive deeply into the topic quickly but not superficially, and the flexibility of it was a real plus. I tended to do it over the weekend, when I was able to fit it in and concentrate and take some time,” said Byrne.

Alumni-led, interactive environment

Although alumni won’t earn credits or certificates for participating, they receive digital badges for completing online courses or through quests—short dives into topics like UChicago’s Nobel laureates and University scholars’ opinions on presidential candidates.

The AlumniU experience is highly interactive, with opportunities to join and start conversations and weigh in on topics and ideas. “This is designed to be alumni-led,” said Damon Cates, MBA’05, senior associate vice president of Alumni Relations and Development. “It’s only as good as the people participating and working together.”

Cates said that AlumniU’s scope and depth is unlike other online alumni sites. “We know our alumni are not interested in a passive experience. They want deeper conversations, a forum to talk, debate and discuss what they’re experiencing,” he said. “We’ve designed AlumniU not to be episodic, but a dynamic platform. We want a stickiness factor, where people have reasons to come back.”

This spring, AlumniU hosted a six-week class titled “Critical Issues in Urban Education” and also launched the first in a series of shorter discussions with faculty. This series, “Connecting the Curious” began with a three-week discussion on “Gravitational Waves: The Significance of the LIGO Discovery” with Prof. Michael Turner. Connecting the Curious continues in the fall with Prof. Hilary Strang’s “Love, Belonging and Other Surprising Concerns of Science Fiction.” Also available this fall will be a six-week class with Asst. Prof. Agnes Callard, AB’97, titled “Plato’s Meno: on the Possibility of Learning How to Be Good.”

Over the long term, Nemec sees AlumniU as what could be the first step in a redefinition of what it means to attend a university. Instead of a few years on campus and then an alumni experience that includes receiving newsletters or attending reunions, an incoming student could expect to be directly connected to faculty and alumni as a lifelong learner.

“The nature of higher education is not as linear as it once was. People have multiple careers,” Nemec says. “If this really gets traction, it could be something where attending the University is seen as a 65-year value proposition, in which a student can continue learning with University faculty and alumni for a lifetime.”