Redefining Online Education

One of the hottest topics in education is the rise of online learning and the controversy surrounding the massively open online courses known as MOOCs. It all started when instructors from several elite universities posted videos of their lectures for free online. They quickly discovered that this allowed them to reach a much wider audience. These free online classes differed from traditional courses in that they had the ability to support enormous class sizes but offered no course credits for students. Startups like Coursera, which was launched by two Stanford University computer science professors, soon began to offer hundreds of free MOOCs.

The Problem with MOOCs

One year later, millions of students worldwide had signed up for MOOCs. Despite high enrollment, Coursera and similar companies like edX and Udacity have found that offering free university courses is not a sustainable business model. Because so many students sign up for each class, there is little accountability for students and many students end up dropping out or failing the class altogether. Another problem with MOOCs is that many students want to earn academic credit for online courses that can be applied to a degree. After all, you can’t very well complete an MBA or other career-enhancing degree by taking MOOCs.

A viable solution for both students and MOOC providers is to allow students to view lectures online as a homework assignment and then come into class to engage with their instructors, have their coursework assessed and receive credit for their work. This solution is frequently referred to as the “flipped classroom” since students view lectures outside of class and then meet with their instructor in a classroom setting to discuss assignments instead of the other way around. In exchange for their instructor’s time and attention, students pay tuition in this scenario.

A Better Option for Students

MOOCs aren’t the only option for online learning, however. Founded in 2008, 2U focuses on enrolling small groups of students in online courses. Working in partnership with top-tier universities, 2U provides an online learning environment that includes a mix of pre-recorded lecture videos and face-to-face instructor-led discussions that are conducted via online chat sessions. 2U refers to its learning environment as a virtual classroom. Unlike the anonymous students in MOOCs, students in 2U programs can engage and network with their instructors and peers. 2U’s programs are tuition-based and provide a full-accredited degree upon completion.

The first school to partner with 2U was the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, which offered a fully online Master of Arts in Teaching degree. The company now works with eight universities and offers a variety of graduate degrees, including an MBA from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. The latest offering is the first online Master of Information and Data Science from UC Berkeley School of Information. In addition to providing graduate degree programs, 2U has initiated a Semester Online program for undergraduates. Seven prominent universities, including Northwestern University, Brandeis and the University of Notre Dame, will provide for-credit undergraduate courses using the virtual classroom model.

While MOOCs have revealed many of the pitfalls involved with offering huge, free online courses, 2U’s virtual classroom concept has the potential to reshape higher education by allowing students to earn degrees from any location with Internet access. The flexibility that the virtual classroom provides is especially attractive for professionals seeking an executive MBA or other graduate degree that will advance their career. 2U has shown that you can attend courses online without sacrificing the quality of your education.

Joshua John is the digital strategist for MBA@UNC, the University of North Carolina’s online MBA. He is an avid blogger and his passion lies at the interception of business and digital media.

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