Unlike the new breed of massive open online course, online master's degree programs stress value of small classes and personal connections.
"Scale is part of what we want to do," Gallagher said. "We want to meet our mission, do it with quality, and also do it at scale." As one of 2U's first customers, Gallagher got the sales pitch for the platform directly from co-founder Katzman. He told her USC had a good teacher education program, but it was "pretty small" and had an opportunity to become truly great by going online. Sold on the vision, she said she never looked seriously at competing products.
Despite this desire for scale, Gallagher said her program has little in common with the massive open online courses, or MOOCs, that have created a sensation in higher education with their promise of free access to courses taught by professors from top universities, offered to tens or hundreds of thousands of students at once. In a recent opinion piece for U.S. News and World Report, she said what bothers her about the rush of education leaders to sign up with MOOCs like Coursera is the "fig leaf that they provide higher ed leaders who appear to be embracing the full promise of online learning while actually doing little more than installing cameras and brighter lighting in the most popular classes. So much more is possible."
Where MOOCs revolve around video lectures, the USC teacher training program is more of a "flipped classroom" experience where the lectures are just the starting point, and the central experience is an online discussion, Gallagher said. The online course software also makes it possible to split a class into smaller discussion groups and then bring them back together to report their findings.
Even more importantly, the master's program gets participants out from behind their keyboards and into the field. 2U helps with the placement of students in schools outside of California, where USC doesn't have existing relationships. Student teachers make video recordings of themselves teaching and meeting with their mentors, and then upload those videos into the system as progress reports on their practicum. The accumulation of this material also helps the university with its research on how to train more effective teachers, Gallagher said.
Graduates of the program are awarded a California teaching certificate, even though they might have taken the course from their home in Connecticut -- an arrangement that works because of reciprocal relationships between t he states who recognize each other's teaching credentials, Gallagher said.
If there is any drawback to educating teachers online, it might be that it sets new teachers up for disappointment because "they've been heavily engaged in multimedia learning and what they find when they get to their own classroom is that's not what they have," Gallagher said. This is particularly true for teachers being sent into inner city schools, she said. "They may be excited about they can use iPads to teach certain concepts, but what they see when they get into the schools is, hey, no iPads."
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Join us for a roundup of the top stories on InformationWeek.com for the week of December 14, 2014. Be here for the show and for the incredible Friday Afternoon Conversation that runs beside the program.