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Three top-tier universities have backed away from a partnership with their peers and the company 2U to create a pool of for-credit online courses.

Despite a year of considerable hype as leading colleges and universities created online partnerships to try to redefine higher education, a recent spate of strong faculty reactions make clear that tradition will not change easily or silently, especially at institutions with a strong history of faculty influence. Citing a variety of reasons, the three universities’ decisions offer a spectrum of reactions to a new wave of online learning and the companies, in this case 2U, that are trying to drive that change.

The three universities are all among a group of 10 top-tier universities that said last November they planned to offer courses through 2U for a project, billed as "one of a kind," known as Semester Online. But as this fall’s launch date approached, these institutions backed away.

One, Duke University, made headlines last month when faculty members forced the university out of the effort. There, faculty frustration with Duke’s provost and worries about the credits to be awarded nixed the university's involvement even though Duke -- unlike other universities that have backed away -- had already signed a contract.

But Duke’s departure from the effort wasn’t the first. For several different reasons, both Vanderbilt University and the University of Rochester also quietly abandoned plans to be a part of Semester Online in recent months. Another of the original 10-member group, Wake Forest, remains on the fence.

At the same time, some professors at Northwestern University are concerned, even as the university prepares to offer Semester Online courses this fall.

Chip Paucek, the CEO of 2U, said that Duke’s departure was a “huge disappointment,” but that Semester Online is “going extremely well” and that the company is in talks with roughly 20 other universities.

The provost at Washington University in St. Louis, which worked with 2U to refine the Semester Online idea over the past two years, said the mixed reaction by other universities is to be expected but will not hinder the effort.

"Each school has its own unique needs and is looking for its own unique benefits to what they are doing in any of these online opportunities, and I can't really speak for what they're doing," said Edward Macias, the Washington provost. "But I feel the six schools in our consortium are working well together and we'll be able to show a very interesting and effective set of courses in the fall."

(Only six universities are offering courses this fall. Brandeis University, for instance, doesn’t plan to offer courses this fall but still considers itself officially a part of Semester Online.)

Semester Online’s pathbreaking experiment is to create a pool of for-credit undergraduate courses. The goal is to offer online courses that meet the standards of top universities. The project could also allow students to learn while they are away from campus, allow universities to pool resources, and perhaps allow universities to offer courses in niche subjects that could not gather a large enough audience at one campus alone.

Each course will be divided into sections of no more than 20 students with recorded video from professors as well as live class sessions led by an instructor, perhaps a graduate student.

Reasons for Duke's Rebellion

At Duke, the faculty rebellion was fueled by continued unhappiness with Duke’s administration. Faculty are displeased with administrators’ plans to open a campus in Kunshan, China, later this year.

But there were also concerns Duke would be granting credit to students who were not admitted to Duke and allowing Duke students to receive credit for online courses from institutions that Duke presumably markets itself as better than.

At the University of Rochester, the reasons for backing away from Semester Online were quite different.

“If students get credit for MOOCs, does that make the Semester Online model financially viable?” Collins said.
--Jennifer Collins, Wake Forest University

Instead of offering for-credit courses through Semester Online for perhaps a few hundred students a year, the university decided to partner with Coursera, which provides massive open online courses to tens of thousands of users but does not issue credits. Rochester’s first Coursera course, “History of Rock, Part One,” has enrolled more than 30,000 students.

“That number pretty much tells the story of why we chose to focus in the short term with Coursera,” said Rob Clark, the dean of Rochester’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “It’s a matter of managing a finite amount of resources and reaching the largest audience we could.”

Clark said Rochester is looking at a number of online educational models. Some universities have multiple online efforts, including Northwestern, which is in both Semester Online and Coursera.

At Vanderbilt, there were two major concerns, said Cynthia Cyrus, the associate provost for undergraduate education.

First, the university was concerned about the price for students of Semester Online courses, which are no less than regular on-campus credits. Other recent online efforts have been aimed at driving down costs.

Second, there was worry about the mix of courses that would be offered. "We were also uncomfortable with 2U’s financial decision to focus the energy of early curricular developments within Semester Online around the larger-enrollment courses instead of an array of niche courses which would have enhanced our students’ access to a broader curricular content,” Cyrus said in an e-mail.

In response, a 2U spokesman and Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer, who is a Semester Online supporter, said that universities themselves were tasked with setting the curriculum, not 2U.

Semester Online backers at Duke and Northwestern have tried to sell the idea by saying that the consortium will allow its professors to get a large enough audience to support niche courses that would otherwise be canceled for lack of interest.

Linzer told a faculty assembly this week that the university could use the broader audience online to resurrect courses that were canceled, like a course on Yiddish literature the university had to drop.

Linzer said one of the considerations that administrators have when they hire faculty is whether the faculty can teach classes that attract a sufficient number of students. In the long run, Linzer said the ability to use an online class to get a large audience for a niche course might end that requirement.

"This now might provide a way to de-couple a requirement to be able to teach these courses to a sufficient number of undergraduates to whether you hire these people," he said.

Wake Forest, meanwhile, remains undecided about whether to involve itself with Semester Online, even though it was one of the first 10 potential partners that talked about joining the consortium and signed a memorandum of understanding. Asked about the potential partners that backed away, 2U noted the addition of Boston College, which was not part of the original 10 but joined the Semester Online effort earlier this year, as well as the other institutions it is talking to, which its officials said they could not name until agreements are signed.

Jennifer Collins, Wake Forest’s associate provost for academic initiatives, said there is still a lot of talking with faculty to do before the university decides. What happened at Duke “proves that’s the right strategy,” she said.

“I honestly don’t know where we’ll end up at this point,” Collins said.

She said the university’s thinking is affected by efforts in Florida and California to allow public college and university students to earn credits from companies that provide massive open online courses.

“If students get credit for MOOCs, does that make the Semester Online model financially viable?” Collins said.

"I feel the six schools in our consortium are working well together and we'll be able to show a very interesting and effective set of courses in the fall."
--Edward Macias, Washington University in St. Louis

Semester Online’s selling point is what 2U calls its “high-touch faculty experience,” which would differ dramatically in scale from the experience offered by MOOCs, which involve primarily recorded lectures and little student-to-instructor interaction. (2U uses that model in the master's degree programs it has with numerous institutions, some of which have significantly increased the reach of those programs.)

But that comes at a price – the same price as a traditional in-person university course.

Paucek said he is “extremely confident, based on everything I’ve seen over the last five years, and frankly over the last 12 months,” that Semester Online’s business model will work.

At Northwestern, which is offering a course this fall, individual departments are still making decisions about whether they will grant credit to Semester Online courses, said Babette Sanders, the chairwoman of the university’s Faculty Senate.

"We have not taken an official stand,” Sanders said. “There are certainly a lot of people asking a lot of questions.”

Linzer, Northwestern's provost, fielded those questions from the faculty at an assembly this week. He said some faculty are very interested in Semester Online, while others are very nervous.

"In my mind... it is an experiment," he said.

The university has agreed to participate for a pilot year.

"We're not making a big commitment; we're able to try this out in various ways,” Linzer said.

Brandeis plans to offer a Semester Online course next spring, but spokeswoman Ellen de Graffenreid said discussions with faculty are ongoing.

"We have a number of different online models in play at the moment and there is likely to be robust faculty discussion and evaluation of all of those models over the next year or so,” she said. “We have a very collaborative campus."

The University of Notre Dame's chief academic digital officer, Elliott Visconsi, said the university is excited to offer courses this fall but plans to pay careful attention to what happens.

“We will be watching these pilot courses carefully to learn as much as we can about the platform/technology, student learning outcomes, quality of student and faculty experience, and the like,” he said in an e-mail.

Linzer said Northwestern wants to have a hand in shaping the future, but understands other universities that are balking.

"This is a moment where we're really going through a potentially disruptive change in how we deliver high-quality education, and no one is very good at predicting the future, so you're seeing people who are reaching out and touching this and pulling back," Linzer said. But others are "reaching out and touching this and saying, ‘O.K., I'll give this a try.’ " 

Doug Shackelford, an associate dean for the online master’s of business administration program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he’s been working with 2U on UNC’s online graduate offerings for several years. That “highly successful” program has ended skepticism about the company’s work.

"There was skepticism about online education -- I think everybody, their first impression is skepticism – but we went through all that skepticism three years ago because we've been running the program two years," he said.

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