Unlike the new breed of massive open online course, online master's degree programs stress value of small classes and personal connections.
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When a graduate school puts courses online, it does not want them to be massive, nor does it want them to be free and open. Just the opposite: the best online graduate courses feature small classes and aren't necessarily entirely online -- often requiring student to get real-world experience outside of class.
This is the market 2U targets with its cloud platform for hosting online courses on a university's behalf, combined with services for arranging those real-world practicums for online students who might be outside of a university's normal service area.
Karen Symms Gallagher, dean of the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, said it made sense for her to contract with the cloud service even though the university had homegrown online course technology available. "Our school of engineering has had distance learning for a very long time -- they started with television -- and they do their own thing," she said. "But teachers are not the same as engineers. They would not put up with lecturing via the Internet." As a cloud service, 2U also offers round-the-clock technical support to both students and faculty "which is something we couldn't provide, ever" with on-premises technology, said Gallagher.
One of the reasons the teacher training program originally hesitated to offer courses online was "we'd seen so much bad online learning -- very non-interactive, just course capture or talking heads," Gallagher said. In contrast, 2U projects the intimacy of a small class experience online, using Adobe Connect as a presentation and video conferencing tool. That means students can see each other, as well as the teacher, in an environment that promotes livelier discussions. The surrounding website for accessing course materials, assignments and collaboration tools "looks a lot like Facebook," making it a familiar and welcoming environment for today's students, Gallagher said. "It really builds on ways that they're already engaged."
Similar motivations drove the selection of 2U by the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, which recently launched an online master's degree program. "There's a lot of face-to-face contact in this environment," said Dean Lynn R. Goldman. "It's very much designed to replicate a campus environment, where you not only meet with the instructor face-to-face on a weekly basis but students bump into each other and become acquaintances. They form a social network with the other students in their classes."
Born in 2009 as 2tor (as in "tutor"), 2U was co-founded by John Katzman, who had previously founded Princeton Review, and Chip Paucek, the current CEO. According to a recent analysis by Audrey Watters on her Hack Education blog, 2U is the best funded of the current crop of education technology startups, with $90.8 million raised. Her analysis is based on data extracted from the Techcrunch Crunchbase database.
Corey Greendale and David Warner of the advisory service First Analysis have been tracking 2U and other entrants in what they call the "school as a service" market for cloud software that allows universities to put courses online without a massive technical investment. Other school-as-a-service offerings include Everspring and Altius, as well extensions of learning management systems such as Instructure's Canvas and Blackboard.
"School as a service right now is focused on master's degree programs," Greendale said. It's complex to organize an online bachelor's degree program for a traditional university because students must be able to take courses from multiple departments, which means they all have to agree on a platform, he said. In comparison, "a master's program is pretty cut-and-dried," where one department can decide to put its program online. Also, the online mode of learning tends to match up best with the needs of working adults, whereas for undergraduates there is "more of a cultural question about the residential experience," Greendale said.
2U is taking its first steps into undergraduate education with Semester Online, its partnership with a coalition of universities including Duke, Emory and Northwestern. Starting with Fall 2013, the partner universities will allow students to take a semester away from campus, while allowing them to continue their studies. Modeled loosely on "semester abroad" programs that inject a different sort of variety into the college experience, Semester Online offers a chance to work, travel or pursue other activities away from campus while continuing to make progress toward graduation.
Other than that, 2U has been focusing all its attention on graduate programs.
The George Washington University Master of Public Health online program allows it to serve students from outside of its campus in Washington, D.C. "Getting a Masters of Public Health is often something people choose to do mid-career, and it isn't always easy for them to pick up stakes and come here," said GW's Goldman. "The online format is good for those students, who do not necessarily live right in a town with its own school of public health."
At the same time, the distributed nature of the program gives those students a chance to practice their skills in their own communities, around the country or around the world. Those practicums can be with a hospital, a public health agency, a non-profit, or a company, provided that "it needs to be an honest-to-God field experience that really allows them to have the knowledge and skills acquired in course work and to rub shoulders with people in the practice of public health," Goldman said.
USC's teacher training program wanted to go beyond the campus and reach more people in pursuit of its social mission of improving learning in high-needs, urban schools. That means its student teaching programs target schools where 60% or more of the population is eligible for free or reduced lunch and graduates are encouraged to take jobs in those schools.
"Before they partnered with us, they were working with 120 grad students on campus," said Shirley Chow of 2U public relations. More than 2,000 students have since been enrolled in the online program, including 1,000 who have now graduated, she said. "That program has scaled enormously."
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