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10 Universities Team To Offer Cross-Institution Online Courses for Credit

Ten universities from Brandeis and Duke to Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, and Washington University in St. Louis are pulling together to launch a new program that delivers credit-bearing online courses to students that may or may not be enrolled in their own institutions. Semester Online, as it's called, will feature real-time and asynchronous activities to emulate the kinds of digital courses currently offered by all of the participants. But at the same time, by opening the class offerings to students outside of a given institution's admission walls, the program also bears some resemblance to MOOCs--massive open online courses.

The new program, which will open for enrollment in spring 2013, is intended to provide "rigorous courses in an online format that gives academic credit," said Ed Macias, provost of Washington U and catalyst for the initiative. The overall goal is to create "a Web-based program that mirrors the richness and robustness of the in-classroom experience and contributes to a student's work towards a degree." The courses will feature the same faculty and curriculum currently being delivered by the universities, he added, and students will participate with "a state-of-the-art virtual classroom platform" to collaborate with other students and interact with faculty.

The first courses will be delivered starting in fall 2013. Admissions will be based on a student's academic background and the specific requirements for each course.

Admission to the courses will be handled through Semester Online, which is being managed by 2U. This company, formerly 2tor, has gained traction in the education segment by developing and running high-profile online master's programs for a handful of universities. Those include the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is part of the launch consortium for Semester Online. The company's virtual classroom environment and interactive platform will be used to deliver the courses.

The classes to be offered at launch are still being sorted out. "This will very much depend on the faculty and what courses they propose to develop on this new platform, said Daniel Linzer, provost of Northwestern University. He said he expects the initial set to focus on introductory level classes that would be "broadly of interest to students at many institutions." Eventually, however, he noted, "that should build up to have more advanced courses as well."

Each course will be run by a professor from one of the participating schools. That portion of the online offering will be delivered asynchronously in a self-paced format to classes of between 100 and 300 students. Then the entire class will be divided into "sections" consisting of 15 to 20 students, run by a "section leader," who will provide real-time online activities, such as virtual face-to-face class discussions.

2U has recommended that participating institutions keep sections to no more than 20 students, to "preserve the quality" and "to allow spontaneous discussion" between students, said Chip Paucek, 2U's co-founder and CEO.

Students will pay to attend classes through Semester Online. Although the cost of the courses hasn't yet been set, according to Macias, the participating schools expect "them to be similar to the sort of cost that we would have at our own institutions." Students' home institutions will also supply financial aid where that's relevant, according to an FAQ on the Semester Online website.

Several of the schools participating in the launch already provide MOOC access to their course materials. For example, Duke University, one of the launch institutions, is currently scheduled to deliver 10 classes through Coursera over the next several months. But according to Provost Peter Lange, all of its forays into online class delivery, including Semester Online, are part of a "broad experimental strategy."

"We'll learn from each of them," he said. "Each is different in the way a student will take a course, what the institution will expect, and the type of student that will be taking a course." Plus, he noted, "we're not offering credit in those MOOC formats."

Lynn Zimmerman, vice provost of undergraduate and continuing education at Emory U, added another major difference: "The most important thing to recognize is that there will be a real-time in-person interactive component to each of the courses that will be delivered through Semester Online, in addition to having the social media to have all kinds of discussions outside of class."

Zimmerman said her students at Emory are "really excited" about the possibilities inherent in the new program. "Now no matter where they are in the world, students will have the opportunity to engage in internships, work experiences, research projects, to travel, or to manage personal commitments while continuing their collegiate academic journey," Zimmerman said. "They'll do this without sacrificing the quality, the rigor, or personal interaction they’ve come to expect and value at their home college or university."

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