Higher education's experiment with online courses continues as 10 top universities band together to offer small class sections for credit.
On Thursday, Nov. 15, course technology provider 2U Inc.and 10 universities announced the launch of Semester Online, a consortium that will start offering undergraduate classes in fall 2013. Semester Online seeks to provide the same level of academic rigor and quality online as the participating universities offer on campus. Top-level universities have already succeeded in this area by partnering with 2U on graduate-level classes.
"This is an extremely exciting way for us to really enhance the curricular opportunities for students in a way that gives up none of the rigor and quality that we expect of all of our courses and that they expect of us," said Peter Lange, provost of Duke University.
The founding universities include the following:
- Brandeis University;
- Duke University;
- Emory University;
- Northwestern University;
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill;
- University of Notre Dame;
- University of Rochester;
- Vanderbilt University;
- Wake Forest University; and
- Washington University in St. Louis.
Along with rigor and quality, the classes feature the same professors on campus. These professors will teach 100 to 300 students in a lecture format. Then the class will be split up into sections of 15 to 20 students with a section leader for each group.
In the social platform that 2U provides, students discuss what they learn with each other and their section leader through their webcams and a chat box. This piece is one of the most exciting parts about learning in Semester Online, said Daniel Linzer, provost of Northwestern university.
"The reason we assemble student bodies that are so diverse is to create those types of conversations where people come at issues from different backgrounds and perspectives," Linzer said. "Semester Online has the real potential now to even broaden that diversity of discourse in the classroom by bringing people together from more locations, more institutions, more backgrounds."
For example, students enrolled at Washington University might be interested in a course at Duke that Washington doesn't offer. They would submit an application through the Semester Online platform, and Duke would decide whether they are academically qualified to take the course. Those students who are enrolled could take the Duke course and apply the credit to their studies at Washington. Students outside of consortium schools can also sign up.
Other students might be working on a research project in Botswana, but need to continue taking classes. Those students can take a course from any of these universities and count the class as transfer credit at most universities.
"Our goal is to allow students to remove these geographic restrictions of a high-quality academic education and to be able to leverage what is inherently great about the small class model and about traditional academia, but to allow them to be anywhere in the world," said Jeremy Johnson, co-founder and president of undergraduate programs at 2U.
He stressed that classes from this consortium are not intended to make up all of a college student's learning experience. Instead, they would make up a small piece of their undergraduate experience, much like study-abroad programs would.
Here's how they compare to massively open online courses:
- Massively open online courses do not charge students, do not currently provide for-credit options, and are designed for large groups of students.
- Semester Online courses charge students comparable amounts to what they pay on campus, do provide transferable credit, and break students into small interactive groups.
These two course formats use different platforms, modes of delivery and combinations of material. But they're not mutually exclusive. Duke University does offer massively open online courses through Coursera and is also trying Semester Online to see what it can learn, said Lange, the Duke University provost.
"We think that online opportunities and the use of digital materials in online education is a very rapidly evolving field," Lange said. "And so what we've chosen to do is to try out multiple experiments, to learn from each of them, and to try to take the lessons that we get from each of them to improve the ultimate experience of our students."