A New Path to Online Learning?

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November 15 saw the announcement of some exciting news for online education. Forbes’ Ilya Pozin went so far as to say the news heralded the solution for the US education problem.

So what’s going on?

2U, named by Forbes as one of the ten startups changing the world, announced their plans to offer online undergraduate courses. So what’s so new about that? With more than six million students now studying at least one course online, the concept of earning a degree online is not exactly trailblazing. Or is it?

Semester Online, the name by which the program will be known, is a new and entirely innovative program that is set to transform the current model of higher education. The company, formerly known as 2tor, has partnered with some of the leading educational institutions in the U.S. to create something rather special. For the first time, students will be able to take for-credit, online courses from a consortium of members that include Duke, University of Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, and Emory.

This is by no means 2U’s first stab at facilitating online education. Founded in 2008, the company has successfully overseen the education of almost 6,000 students in 30 countries. The only difference is that until now, the company has focused entirely on graduate courses.

The newly designed undergraduate level courses will be delivered via a state-of-the-art virtual classroom which seeks to emulate the on-campus experience as closely as possible. As The New York Times’ Hannah Seligson points out – unlike the massive open online courses (MOOCs), students simply won’t be able to sneak in late or miss a lecture and the absence go unnoticed. Each of the proposed 15 to 20 students studying a particular class will be designated a square (billed as the equivalent of a classroom chair). They’ll even be able to raise a virtual hand. It’s an on-the-money analysis that’s backed up by 2U founder Chip Paucek who states “It’s going to be the most rigorous, live, for-credit online experience ever.”

If the graduate programs are anything to go by, the first Semester Online undergraduate class can expect student IDs and access to the same on-campus facilities that other students do (if they want it). So what else can you expect from the “most rigorous, live, for-credit online experience ever”?

– This is as about as close to the bricks and mortar experience as students can get – live courses, small groups, outstanding peers, and renowned professors.

– Compelling and richly produced course materials that have been designed by university faculty and are available to students around the clock.

– A built in learning management system and familiar tools for the most popular social media platforms will enable students to connect with each other and build up their own personal peer network.

Semester Online courses are set to start in the fall of 2013, although the specific details of courses, the application process, and crucially how much they will cost will not be announced until early 2013.

Watch this space.

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