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The online education provider 2U will this summer eliminate its online course pool initiative in favor of developing fully online undergraduate degree programs, ending a high-profile effort to offer scalable, credit-granting online courses at residential colleges.

The consortium, known as Semester Online, was initially marketed as a platform for top-tier universities to offer online courses to paying students at participating universities. During the 2012 media storm surrounding massive open online courses, it emerged with a distinctive message, promising small course sizes and live, interactive videoconferencing sessions.

But before the launch of last fall’s pilot, Duke and Vanderbilt Universities and the University of Rochester had backed out, and Wake Forest University remained on the fence. At the colleges that dropped out and at Wake Forest, the decisions came after intense faculty debate; Duke, for example, rejected joining the consortium in a 16-14 vote by the Arts & Sciences Council. Although Wake Forest eventually joined the consortium, which this spring expanded with new courses and international partners, the universities and 2U reached a mutual decision to end the initiative.

“Semester Online was always an experiment,” Chance Patterson, 2U’s senior vice president of communications, said in an email. “The pilot program experienced significant challenges related to the complexities of a consortium structure.”

In addition to losing some of its founding members, Semester Online’s fall pilot also struggled with low enrollment. Some participating universities were unable to sign up students until mid-June -- several months after fall registration -- meaning some courses were left with single-digit enrollments.

Patterson described Semester Online as an “informative” experience that has “helped 2U develop its instructional model for the undergraduate population.” And along with Wednesday’s announcement that it would disband the consortium, 2U also unveiled its first undergraduate degree program, an RN to BSN program developed in partnership with Simmons College.

In an email, Claire E. Sterk, provost of Emory University, described her institution's participation in Semester Online as a learning experience, and thanked the faculty "for being open to academic innovation."

"From my perspective, it was a great experiment led by our dean of arts and sciences and the faculty," Sterk wrote. "We also learned important lessons about the ways in which universities teach and are able to compare traditional versus more innovative modes of teaching."New -CS

Ed Macias, provost emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis, said via email that he was "proud to have been part of this experiment in online education," and that courses had been "top quality."

2U, fresh off a successful initial public offering last week, is better-known for developing fully online master’s degree programs for institutions such as Georgetown University, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of North Carolina, among others. 

Those programs have generally been well-received among graduate school faculty. Writing about his experiences with the University of North Carolina's online M.B.A. program, Steve Cohen, a professor with more than three decades of teaching in graduate-level business courses, described the online experience as "more intimate than 90 percent of the seminars I’ve taught in or taken."


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