ASU Barrett Honors College online pilot program a success

June 28, 2022

Fatimah Alexandria “Alex” Cornelius is finding fulfillment and empowerment as a student in the inaugural class of an online honors program now being offered by Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University.

Cornelius, a 30-something mom of four and wife of a U.S. Coast Guard member, who lives in El Paso, Texas, is working on a bachelor’s degree in anthropology with minors in political science and sustainability.

Fatimah Alexandria “Alex” Cornelius, a member of the inaugural class of the Barrett, The Honors College Online program and president of the online honors student group The Forge.
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“I have spent years putting my studies aside to raise my kids and follow my husband, so finally pursuing my degree has been empowering,” she said.

“Since joining Barrett, I have had the privilege of studying with like-minded and equally determined students and becoming part of a close-knit community that will last past graduation. My interactions with Barrett faculty and staff also have been one-of-a-kind. They genuinely want their students to succeed in doing remarkable things, and they have personally encouraged me to apply for major scholarships through ONSA (Office of National Scholarships Advisement), and to pursue the BA to PhD program for my major. All of which have given me a fresh perspective on my capabilities and opportunities,” she added.

The Barrett Online program is the first of its kind offered by a top-rated honors college in the country.

The program grew out of the necessity to offer honors courses online throughout the coronavirus pandemic that began in 2019, but the idea for such a program was sparked long before.

About five years ago, Mark Jacobs — who served as dean of Barrett, The Honors College for nearly 20 years and retired this summer — and Phil Regier, university dean for educational initiatives and CEO of EdPlus at ASU, discussed the possibility of establishing online honors classes and an online honors program. 

According to Jacobs, the problem then was that real-time, in-class discussions — of issues arising from the readings, of opinions and comments by classmates, and of stylistic issues about writing — were seen as crucial to the honors seminar experience, and they were simply not possible with the standard asynchronous online class format.

But with the onset of the pandemic, the idea of offering Barrett courses online became a necessity if the honors college were to move forward with its program at all, Jacobs said.

Under the leadership of President Michael Crow, ASU was able to use the Zoom platform to convert many of its courses to synchronous online, and the Barrett faculty found that that modality allowed class discussion live and with participation by all students present and interacting with each other well, Jacobs explained.

By the summer of 2020, Jacobs and Regier revisited the question of an online honors program with the idea of piloting a program with a small group of select ASU Online students.

The stipulations Jacobs asked for were that honors courses all be taught live (synchronously) by Barrett faculty already practiced via the pandemic in running an online seminar, that Barrett admissions staff have a large say in which students were accepted into the program, and that some version of the Barrett fee charged to in-person students be applied to pay for the faculty time that would be involved over and above their in-person duties.

Over the 2020–21 academic year, staff and faculty from Barrett, The Honors College and ASU EdPlus worked together to devise the core framework of an online honors pilot program.  

An admissions application was created and information about the program was sent out to a subset of ASU Online students who had already completed about a year of credits toward their undergraduate degrees.

Students with a history of success in ASU Online, including progression in their degrees and a strong GPA, were invited to attend information sessions on Barrett, The Honors College and apply for upper division online entry for fall 2021. 

Applicants were asked to share transcripts, background information on their work, community involvement, leadership and personal interests. They also wrote short essays describing why they were seeking to join Barrett, The Honors College and what topics they imagined for their honors thesis projects.

According to Alex Aragon, Barrett, The Honors College director of academic planning and retention, 89 students applied for admission in the fall of 2021 and 48 were accepted, making for the first-ever cohort of ASU Online students to pilot a program to explore expanding access to Barrett, The Honors College’s unique honors curriculum and experience.

The initial goal was a cohort of 25 students, but the group was expanded due to the outstanding quality of the student applicants and their excitement for an honors experience, Aragon said.  

Program developers felt students with existing college-level academic experience would be most prepared for the Barrett Online pilot, so eligible students had to have earned a minimum of 24 credits post-high school graduation before Barrett enrollment, including in-progress credits at the time of application to the program. Credits could be a combination of ASU and transfer units. They also had to have completed ASU’s first-year composition requirement and have a minimum of 60 credits remaining until their intended ASU graduation.

“We were delighted to welcome a diverse and exciting class of Barrett ASU Online students. They represent eight of the colleges at ASU and come from 22 unique majors,” Aragon said, adding that Barrett Online students became part of the close-knit community of honors scholars learning from the distinguished honors faculty and top ASU professors.

Students in the program must take the 21-credit Barrett Online curriculum, which includes HON 370: The History of Ideas, a capstone honors thesis or creative project for up to six credits, and an additional 12 upper division honors elective credits.

The 12 credits not addressed through HON 370 and the thesis/creative project are flexible and integrated into a student’s ASU program of study, allowing them to be completed in a number of ways, including honors sections of university courses, enrichment contracts that create honors experiences out of regular ASU classes, and via internship, research and study abroad opportunities. 

To graduate from ASU with Barrett distinction, online students will be required to achieve a 3.25 cumulative GPA and complete all university degree expectations, in addition to the Barrett curriculum.

Similar to all Barrett Honors College students, online honors students have access to honors-only research and internship opportunities, events, activities and lectures.

The fee for Barrett Online students is $111 per credit hour, with an expectation that students complete a minimum of six credit hours each semester. Typically, Barrett Online students enroll in at least nine credits a semester through A, B and C session classes. The resulting $999 fee reflects the maximum possible fee amount for a semester and is equal to the $1,000-per-semester fee for Barrett students at the physical university campuses. Barrett Online students who enroll in more than nine credits for a semester are not charged any additional fees. Currently, the Barrett fee is only charged for the fall and spring semesters, not the summer.

All proceeds from the fee are invested in bettering the honors experience for Barrett students and supporting an array of honors academic projects and activities, ranging from opportunities to present at conferences to bringing in prominent external examiners or persons with expertise to sit on honors thesis committees. The fee also supports summer study abroad scholarships, thesis and academic project reimbursement opportunities, and many other student services and programs. Barrett Online students also have a dedicated honors academic adviser.

“It was crucial that with Barrett Online, we maintain engagement with students and make sure the program is providing an experience comparable in every way to the quality offered to in-person students. The in-person students pay a fee and pay in addition for their meals and residence rooms, and the Barrett Online honors students are not paying for the latter. We thus focused on making the rest of their honors experience worthy of the fee,” Jacobs said.

Barrett Online students have completed work in honors sections and enrichment contracts this academic year, started preparing for honors theses and creative projects, and taken on research positions.

They also have participated in a number of student engagement activities and events, and have started their own student organization called The Forge.

In addition to welcoming online students into honors special topics classes, Barrett has created hybrid in-person and oCourseAn oCourse is an internet-based course that can only be taken by students who belong to the ASU Online campus. seats so they can engage with ground-based honors students in a dynamic learning environment, Aragon said.

Barrett Online is currently entering a second phase with plans to enroll small groups in fall 2022 and spring 2023.

In fall 2022, Barrett Online students will have the opportunity to work on a thesis with Lee Hartwell, the first Nobel Prize recipient in physiology or medicine to serve a faculty appointment at an Arizona university.

Hartwell, who has been teaching Barrett students for several years, will focus the project on examining learning strategies around known and unknown information in academia. Students will create educational lesson plans about what is known and ultimately develop a related research proposal about an unknown that asks a question and proposes an experiment to answer the question.

Examples of past student projects supervised by Hartwell include concepts related to the heart, digestion, mRNA vaccines and a variety of computer science themes, like block chain.

Cornelius, who is president of The Forge, speaks highly of her Barrett Online experience and of Robert Niebuhr, an Honors Faculty Fellow, who taught her History of Ideas course and provided students with pieces of literature and poems from his personal collection that were not readily available elsewhere. 

“He taught us how to be more effective writers and think critically about readings and opinions. He was and still is extremely supportive in our scholarly ventures. Dr. Niebuhr was so influential to those of us in that first Barrett Online class that we were scrambling to find the next course we could take with him as our professor. The thesis course he taught in the spring of ’22 mostly consisted of students from his History of Ideas cohort,” she said.

“Altogether, Barrett has been an experience that I will forever cherish and has provided me with the confidence, critical thinking skills and opportunities that will help me pursue my dreams and make a positive mark in the world. I have also gained lifelong friends through our scheduled Zoom classes, which were unexpectedly fulfilling, especially as a full-time online student.”

What do students have to say about Barrett Online? Chris Floyd, chief adviser for Barrett Online students, said opinions were very favorable overall.

When asked “Why did you apply to Barrett and what do you hope to accomplish?” they wrote:

  • “I joined Barrett Online for the opportunity to become one of the first in the long history of ASU.”
  • “For the opportunity to work with one of the best honors colleges in the nation and make a positive change with the help of Barrett faculty.”
  • “I want to enrich my education experience and craft it to match my interests and life experience!”
  • “To take my education and life trajectory to a new level by learning from the brilliant professors and community of students.”
  • “To push myself academically, to have support and guidance with applying to graduate school, and the overall experience of the community.”
  • “The thesis opportunity was a big draw for me, as well as the opportunity for a more in-depth approach to my degree.”
  • “I applied to Barrett to have an uplifted educational experience here at ASU and get to know faculty on a personal level. I am excited to meet my professors and work with them closely. I also love the idea that I will have a synchronous course that will challenge me in a new way.”
  • “I applied to Barrett because I recognized that this would be the opportunity of a lifetime and I was so intrigued to meet everyone in this community and cohort — I am so pleased to be a part of this unique experience!”

By the numbers

The Barrett Online spring 2022 cohort colleges represented: College of Global Futures (1); College of Health Solutions (5); Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts (2); College of Integrative Sciences and Arts (2); Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering (3); New College of Interdsisciplinary Arts and Sciences (6); The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (23); W. P. Carey School of Business (2); Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions (2).

The top three majors of the cohort were anthropology, psychology and English.

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