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Semester Online – a consortium of 10 schools offers for-credit online courses to its students and the world

The New York Times, Inside Higher Ed, and The Chronicle of Higher Education today all reported on Semester Online, a collaboration between 10 top-tier universities that, starting fall 2013, will offer fully online, credit-bearing undergraduate courses through a partnership with 2u (formerly known as 2tor). The institutions currently in the consortium are Duke, Emory, Washington University, Brandeis University, Northwestern University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Notre Dame, University of Rochester, Vanderbilt University, and Wake Forest University.

Why is this news? For two reasons. First, unlike MOOCs, Semester Online courses will be small (enrollment will be limited to 20 students per course) and comparable to the experience a student would get in a classroom. The Inside Higher Ed article states “2U and its partners are promising a high-touch virtual classroom experience that approaches, if not equals, the social and intellectual rigor of a typical course at Duke or any of the company’s other partners…The idea is to replicate not only the content and assessment mechanisms of traditional courses, but also the social intimacy…The sections will aim to mimic a seminar-like environment where students can look their classmates and instructors in the face and engage with them directly.”

Second, also unlike MOOCs, students will receive credit for the courses from the institution offering them.

So why are the schools doing this? One reason is to enable students to take courses not available at their home institution but that are available at a partner institution. Another is to give students flexibility – “students will be able to work, travel, participate in off-campus research programs or manage personal commitments that in the past would have meant putting their studies on hold,” says a news release. The Chronicle article singles out study abroad students as a potential audience for this type of coursework, particularly science students who may in the past have chosen not to study abroad because they could not take required classes while abroad.

It should be noted that this is not the first consortium to offer online courses for its member institutions – the Associated Colleges of the South has been experimenting with Chinese and Arabic courses online for its members.

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