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2U Launches SemesterOnline Consortium With Duke, Emory & Others

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By Paul Glader, Managing Editor

Maryland-based Ed Tech startup 2U and several notable American universities are forming a consortium called Semester Online that will allow students to pay to take online courses for credit from top schools.

“This provides a unique opportunity for students to pursue degrees, take courses and stay on track for graduation” even if they are away from campus for a semester traveling, working or doing research, said Daniel Linzer, provost at Northwestern University in Chicago. It gives them “access to unique courses from the country’s most prestigious universities.”

The consortium so far includes Northwestern, Notre Dame University, Emory University, Washington University in St. Louis, Duke University, Wake Forest University, Vanderbilt University, Brandeis University and the University of Rochester. The consortium expects to add other universities in coming months.

SemesterOnline begins accepting student applications next spring and begins courses in the fall of 2013 with thousands of students - from the member institutions and outside students - paying tuition to take the for-credit classes. Each class will have up to 300 students watching lectures and studying the materials. They will be broken down into sections of 20 or fewer students that engage with teachers live, online in a way that simulates a seminar discussion in a classroom.

Colleges and universities nationwide are under pressure to battle rising tuition and to cater to modern students who use social media heavily and learn by using digital technology much more so than earlier generations. More and more students are taking classes or degree programs entirely online although many of the online only programs are less selective and rigorous than well-known, selective colleges and universities. Meanwhile, several startups are offering massive open online courses - or MOOCs - for free to students.

The Semester Online consortium is a potential shot across the bow at several massive open online course providers such as Udacity, edX and Coursera that offer classes from schools such as Stanford, Princeton, UPenn and Harvard. MOOCs offer students video content and course materials along with grading and a course certificate but not college credit at this point. A handful of colleges are starting to award credit for MOOC courses and the Gates Foundation this week announced efforts to connect MOOC courses to real college credit.

“MOOCs subject matter is free,” said Peter Lange, provost of Duke University, which participates in MOOC programs as well as the Semester Online project. He and other provosts said their schools have to experiment with many projects as methods of learning evolve. The Semester Online program is appealing because it can help pay for itself more rapidly than MOOCs and allow professors to teach credit-seeking students. “They [MOOCs] don’t have the kind of one on one interaction or the kind of rigor we have with our courses.”

Emory University provost Lynn Zimmerman said the project will offer social networking tools to foster relationships and teamwork between students. The self-paced curriculum, she said, is designed to allow students to keep up with studies while traveling, working or managing other personal commitments. “They can do this without sacrificing the rigor they have come to expect at their home university.”

Chip Paucek, CEO of 2U, said his company has built a portal - - that will make it easy for students to sign up. The partners expect a range of introductory courses initially with advanced courses added later. “The most important thing is that we focus on rigor and quality,” Paucek says. Over time, he expects the program will handle students worldwide, meaning it aims to rival MOOC providers with a model that brings in more money to member colleges and offers real credit to students participating.

2U has launched several online graduate school programs for noted universities such as a nursing program at Georgetown University and a social work program at the University of Southern California. SemesterOnline is 2U’s first venture into undergraduate education.


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