education's digital future

Elite Online Courses for Cash and Credit

A consortium of 10 top-tier universities will soon offer fully online, credit-bearing undergraduate courses through a partnership with 2U, a company that facilitates online learning.

Any students enrolled at an “undergraduate experience anywhere in the world” will be eligible to take the courses, according to Chip Paucek, the CEO of 2U, which until recently was called 2tor. The first courses are slated to make their debut in the fall.

After a year in which the top universities in the world have clambered to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs) for no credit, this new project marks yet another turning point in online education. It is the first known example of top universities offering fully online, credit-bearing courses to undergraduates who are not actually enrolled at the institutions that are offering them.

“We want to be part of the experiment, and we feel that the time is right,” says J. Lynn Zimmerman, senior vice provost for undergraduate and continuing education at Emory University, which will be part of the consortium.

“I don’t think the idea of offering credit online is, anymore at least, such a strange one,” says Ed Macias, the provost at Washington University in St. Louis, another member. “I think the issue everybody is facing is how to do it.”

The elite-branded, massive courses now being rolled out through Coursera and edX have set the stage for the 2U consortium, but the online courses from the consortium will not be MOOCs. The idea is to replicate not only the content and assessment mechanisms of traditional courses, but also the social intimacy.

Like 2U’s existing credit-bearing graduate programs — at Georgetown University, the University of Southern California and elsewhere — the new undergraduate courses will include a mix of recorded lectures and online course materials and live, instructor-led, video-based discussion sections. The sections will aim to mimic a seminar-like environment where students can look their classmates and instructors in the face and engage with them directly.

There will be selective admissions criteria for each course, and the students who enroll will have to pay. The universities, not the company, will set the admissions criteria for each course, says Jeremy Johnson, president of undergraduate programs at 2U.

Same with prices. In some cases students may pay roughly market rate. Duke University, for example, does not calculate its tuition on a credit-hour basis, but the price of taking one of its 2U courses will probably work out to about the equivalent of an on-campus course, says Peter Lange, the provost. (At Duke, that is about $5,500 per course.) Lange and others say the details of pricing have not been set.

In return 2U and its partners are promising a high-touch virtual classroom experience that approaches, if not equals, the social and intellectual rigor of a typical course at Duke or any of the company’s other partners. And upon completion the students will receive the equivalent number of credits — with the institution’s seal of approval. The company and the universities will share any revenue that comes from the project.

In addition to Duke, Emory and Washington University, the institutions currently on board as of today’s announcement are Brandeis University, Northwestern University, the Universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Notre Dame, and Rochester, Vanderbilt University, and Wake Forest University....

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