2U teams with top schools to to show there’s more to online ed than MOOCs

The New York Times might be calling it “the year of the MOOC,” but the future of online learning isn’t just massive online courses. In the past year, Coursera, Udacity, edX and other free platforms with mega-sized virtual classrooms have garnered mega-sized media attention (and not without good reason). But just outside that spotlight, Landover, Md.-based 2U (formerly 2tor) has been building a strong network of partners, investors and clients for its own model of online education that focuses on small classes, live instruction and teacher-student interaction.

Since launching in 2008, the company, which was co-founded by Princeton Review founder John Katzman, has partnered with seven universities, including Georgetown, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Washington University, to provide the online equivalent of top-quality masters degree programs (at equivalent prices).  On Thursday, the company announced that it’s launching a new program for undergraduate education, with a consortium of ten leading institutions that include Brandeis, Duke, Emory, Northwestern and the University of Rochester. 2U said they expect the program, which will start in the fall of 2013, to ultimately attract additional consortium partners.

“The goal here is to create an online experience that has the exact same student outcomes as the best schools in the world,” said Jeremy Johnson, 2U co-founder and president of undergraduate programs.

Calling 2U’s approach “sort of the polar opposite” of MOOCs, he said, the new program, called Semester Online, applies the technology and infrastructure already in place in its master’s degree programs to give undergraduate students virtual classroom experiences that match the quality of their offline experiences.

Students get flexibility, expanded options

Through the new undergraduate program, students attending the partner universities, as well as those who do not, can apply to take online courses offered by any of the consortium partners – for full credit.  Students would be subject to the same offline admission standards and the courses are priced the same as their offline equivalents, but Johnson said the new program gives students the flexibility to supplement their course of study with classes not offered by their own institution or travel anywhere in the world for an internship or other experience without putting their degree on hold. For example, he said, a student at UNC could remotely take an esoteric music class from the University of Rochester (which is known for its music program), or a student interested in an internship in Sub-Saharan Africa could continue taking classes while out of the country. 2U said they expect the program, which will start in the fall of 2013, to ultimately attract additional consortium partners.

As opposed to a MOOC, in which students have little (or no) real-time interaction with professors and peers and learn mostly on their own time, 2U classes are all delivered in real-time, in an online environment that lets the professor and students see and interact with the entire class online.  Professors can see if students aren’t paying attention and call them back into the conversation or adapt a lesson if it seems like the class isn’t following along. And students can interrupt a lecture to ask the professor to repeat a concept or explain it in more detail. And, unlike MOOCs, which can number in the hundreds of thousands or millions, 2U keeps the student-teacher ratio low with online class sections that never exceed 20 students.

Higher ed beginning to accept digital

While universities often honor credits from other institutions, Johnson said, this was the first time they have come together in such a collective fashion to offer credits. Given the rise of online learning platforms, like Coursera and Udacity, which provide cheaper and more convenient access to education (and are beginning to do so for credit), it makes sense that universities are willing to band together for 2U’s program. Not only do they get to expand their presence to digital while maintaining many hallmarks of quality offline education and — importantly, price — they have a chance to learn from partner institutions.

And it shows higher ed institutions are beginning to come to terms with the encroachment of online education. This summer, a study from Pew and Elon University reported that 60 percent of internet experts, researchers, observers and users polled said they agreed that by 2020, “there will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning” and a “transition to ‘hybrid’ classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings.”

Johnson emphasised that while 2U supports a different model of online education, it still appreciates MOOCS – indeed, a few of its partners, including Duke and Emory, also partner with Coursera.

“We think MOOC are fantastic for the world,” he said. “We just don’t think they’re a replacement for the type of education you’d get at a top institution.”