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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. 

2U says it plans to add “a handful” of partners prior to the formal opening next fall. But ultimately the extent of the consortium’s growth, like the admissions standards and the prices, will be the purview of a governing body within the consortium itself, according to Johnson. And he expects them to keep selective company.

“This is really intended to be a consortium of like-minded institutions that have a similar approach to academic integrity and rigor,” he says. “They intend for it to be small. I can’t imagine it growing to any more than two or two-and-a-half times its current size.”

Something else that will be left in the hands of individual universities is how the availability of credit-bearing online courses could affect under-enrolled courses on their local campuses.

Several of 2U’s institutional partners say they expect their own students to take online courses from other universities in the consortium — particularly if the timing of an offering does not jibe with a student’s own schedule. The official name for the consortium is Semester Online, which emphasizes the parallels to study-abroad programs. Students “will be able to work, travel, participate in off-campus research programs or manage personal commitments that in the past would have meant putting their studies on hold,” says a news release.

At the same time, the slate of online courses could also make it easier for some members to farm out certain low-demand courses to peer schools.

“We’ve definitely had faculty members ask about that,” says Johnson. “My understanding, from the existing consortium members, is that is not their intent,” he adds. “But I couldn’t say one way or another whether that is or is not going to happen.”

One way many institutions are planning to use the consortium is as a research project. Keith E. Whitfield, the vice provost for academic affairs at Duke, has been appointed to head a new task force on assessing the university's new online ventures -- including both the 2U courses and the MOOCs that Duke is offering through Coursera.

The mouse-click data logged by 2U’s online platform will generate rich data sets from which Duke’s task force — which draws heavily from Whitfield’s own psychology and neuroscience department — hopes to learn more than the university ever has about how its students learn, according to the vice provost.

For example, “Is there a minimum amount of time on task, or time reviewing course materials, where people were able to do well on the assessments?” he says. “Which resources work best? Are there things that work in the online world and not in class? … And what are the things in a traditional class that we can’t repeat online?”

Although they are not designed to achieve the scale of MOOCs, if successful the Semester Online courses could allow their home institutions to gradually expand their enrollments, and tuition revenue, without having to buy new property and build new buildings. And although the first courses will be taught by regular professors at the universities, the faculty that might eventually be hired to teach online "would not have to be hired in the same mode or set of expectations" as are those who typically teach on campus, says Zimmerman.

But the universities insist that reducing costs is not the impetus for Semester Online. While they hope the program will generate some extra revenue, the provosts did not seem optimistic about online courses as a significant step in defraying the cost and funding problems that have led to steep tuition rises in recent years.

"Do I think that having available of these types of courses will be able to allow us to lower tuition to the full Duke experience?" says Lange, the Duke provost. The answer is no. "It may slow the growth," he continued, but "I don’t think it’s going to lead to a reduction.”

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