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Online Education Race Heats Up

2U announces the upcoming launch of online undergraduate courses from top schools, including Duke and Northwestern.
Students in 2U's Semester Online will attend virtual discussion groups via webcam.
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In the past year, several companies have launched with the goal of making courses from the likes of Harvard and Stanford accessible to students around the globe. The New York Times even declared 2012 the year of the MOOC, or massive open online course.

Now 30 Under 30 alum 2U, which has previously focused on online graduate degree programs, has decided to throw its hat into the ring. This week, the company, formerly known as 2tor, announced a partnership with a consortium of 10 universities to offer undergraduate courses online. The company's new program, Semester Online, will launch in September 2013 with a catalog of about 30 courses offered by Brandeis, Duke, Emory, Northwestern, University of North Carolina, Notre Dame, University of Rochester, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, and Washington University in St. Louis.

Unlike 2U's existing programs, Semester Online, as the name implies, will not be a full degree program. But students enrolled in undergraduate programs at many universities will be able to earn transferable credit for the courses. That provision puts 2U a step ahead of other education start-ups, such as Coursera, whose courses are not currently eligible for credit.

The semester-length format is by design, says co-founder Jeremy Johnson, who is heading development of the new program, for which students must apply. Previously, the company was reluctant to attempt offering undergraduate courses. “We believed that what students really want is a campus experience, an ongoing four-year conversation with their peers and professors,” he says.

But that stance began to soften after discussions with Ed Macias, the provost of Washington University in St. Louis, with which 2U also offers a master's of law program. Market research confirmed the company’s belief that students were less inclined to opt for a full four-year program online, but it also revealed that they were interested in supplementing their education with online courses from other schools.

With Semester Online being geared toward students already in traditional programs, its vision may seem more restrictive than that of sites that promise to open up university access to anyone, regardless of credential. But Johnson believes that enabling greater flexibility in academic pursuits is just as transformative. Students who would otherwise take time off from school to pursue work, research, or travel can continue their studies through online courses. And students who may not have the resources to attend a top-tier school can access its courses without having to travel to its campus.

“For the first time, you can take a famous Duke course even if you don’t attend Duke,” Johnson says. “You can show that you completed it and are able to achieve just as well as Duke students.”




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