Top Universities Partner With Online Provider to Create For-Credit Courses

Schools such as Duke and Northwestern will provide online courses at a yet-to-be-determined cost.

Through 2U's Semester Online platform, students and professors will interact in weekly scheduled video chats.

Through 2U's Semester Online platform, students and professors will interact in weekly scheduled video chats.

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A new online education platform featuring courses from some of the country's top-ranked universities will be available to students for college credit starting in fall 2013. Semester Online is a partnership between a consortium of schools and the online education provider 2U Inc.—formerly known as 2tor—that will deliver university-accredited courses through a virtual classroom environment.

Participating universities include Brandeis UniversityDuke University, Emory University, Northwestern University, University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, University of Notre Dame, University of Rochester, Vanderbilt University, Wake Forest University, and Washington University in St. Louis. Academically qualified students who are "attending consortium schools as well as other top schools across the country" will be eligible to take courses through the platform, according to today's press release announcing the partnership.

While this is 2U's first venture into the undergraduate space, the online provider has partnered with graduate schools since its founding in 2008; graduate programs currently offered through 2U include USC Rossier Online, Nursing@Georgetown, and MBA@UNC, among others.

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The look and feel of the new undergraduate courses will be similar to the site's current grad offerings, says Chip Paucek, cofounder and CEO of 2U. "For us, we believe that this initiative will be defined by its rigor. You've got high-quality courses with intense, small class sizes. When you're in the platform, it's a very intimate process."

The courses through 2U are set up much like standard online courses, which include asynchronous content such as prerecorded lectures and reading materials provided by a university professor for students to review each week. But unlike other online programs, students are still required to attend a virtual classroom at a scheduled time once a week, Paucek says.

"You have to go to class," he notes. "Once you've consumed that asynchronous content, you go to class. And when you're in class … the professor is in one [video] square, and the rest of the students are in other squares."

This announcement follows recent news regarding Coursera, a platform for massive open online courses (MOOCs), which announced a partnership to provide a limited number of courses through Antioch University for college credit. Coursera, which partners with 33 colleges and universities to deliver asynchronous courses through its platform, allows unlimited enrollment in its own courses at no cost to the user; completion of a course currently results in a certificate, not college credit.

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Peter Lange, provost for Duke University, notes that Duke has partnered with both Coursera and 2U. "We've been very open to experimenting with different ways to improve our on-campus teaching and learning," Lange says. But while he believes Coursera has allowed Duke faculty members to expand their courses to a wider audience, he's not sold on the "fully online" experience.

"We haven't believed that the fully asynchronous, no face-to-face aspect was going to be a format that would be particularly attractive to us," Lange says. "There's a whole lot of interaction you can't do in an asynchronous course."

The weekly "in-class" video component of 2U's Semester Online, along with the schools Duke would be joining, is what ultimately enticed the institution to enter the consortium, he notes. "The schools offering those courses are very high-quality schools in which we have a high degree of confidence in the faculty and the fact that the faculty teach students like our students," Lange adds.

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With the official launch months away, and specific courses yet to be determined, the cost of each course is also still in question. Although 2U's Paucek says that the online courses will be "slightly less" than its in-class counterparts, Lange expects Semester Online courses to be "pretty close" in cost to in-class courses.