Northwestern announced the creation of Semester Online, a platform developed in consortium with nine peer universities and education company 2U to provide online, for-credit undergraduate courses beginning Fall Quarter 2013.
Provost Dan Linzer participated in a conference call with 2U co-founder Chip Paucek and provosts from Emory, Duke and Washington University in St. Louis. Ten universities in total have signed on, with more to come in the future.
While 2U has launched online partnerships with universities before, a program at this scale is unprecedented. Courses will be available to the public, as well as students from the ten universities. They will be taught by professors from the ten schools, with no more than 20 students in any class. Northwestern students can take courses from Semester Online at no cost provided that they are full-time undergraduates.
In a phone call, Linzer said that Northwestern had been having “pretty serious discussions” about the platform for 18 months. He cited 2U’s cutting-edge technology and proven results with other universities as key factors in entering the partnership.
“There is no company doing this kind of a virtual classroom format where the experience is like being in a seminar room,” Linzer said.
Linzer expects that Semester Online will be especially popular with students studying abroad or busy with extracurricular activities. “Many of our students find it difficult to schedule all their courses and activities in a way that is optimal for them," said Linzer. "These courses should add flexibility for them.”
The provost said faculty would be responsible for designing courses and that he expects fewer than 10 courses offered by Northwestern faculty in Semester Online’s first year.
The degree of interaction is one of the program’s strengths, since everyone in the class can see each other.
“You can’t really sit there and look at your Facebook page during class,” said Bob Rowley, director of media relations for the University. Rowley also said that the academic strength of the participating universities, interactive ability of the platform and undergraduate credit distinguish Semester Online from other online courses.
Chance Patterson, 2U Senior Vice President of Communications, said that 2U plans to offer courses to a few hundred students in the first year before expanding to thousands of students thereafter.
“Up to 20 students can be participating in live classrooms with real professors, much like what you would have in a physical classroom,” said Patterson. “Imagine a Brady Bunch Tic-Tac-Toe grid and your professor is in one of those boxes. Your other students are in the others and you can talk live, listen to the professor and have breakout sessions.”