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The race to capture a potentially vast market for college courses provided online has taken another big step with the announcement today by 10 top universities that they’ll offer such classes for college credit—something earlier collaborations have struggled to do.

accredited online college courses
Students in a real-time virtual classroom run by the company 2U, which is part of the new Semester Online initiative.

Semester Online envisions not huge, 100,000-student online courses such as those already being offered by MIT and Stanford, but a return to traditional-sized college classes of 12 to 15 students with live student-professor interactions—just delivered online instead of in person. And rather than making the courses available for free to anyone, it will likely have admission standards and charge tuition, according to the university provosts who have helped set it up.

The concept creates a sudden and significant divide about how best to educate online, just as America’s top universities try to get in on an anticipated boom in online learning.

“The biggest selling point is that it isn’t really new,” says Rogan Kersh, provost of Wake Forest University, one of Semester Online’s member schools. “It still feels like an extension of what we do now—the traditional university course that we already know works well, as opposed to a Wild West [where] all bets are off [and it’s] every student for him- or herself.”

Courses will be taught by university faculty following the same curricula used in conventional courses and with conventional techniques such as class discussions, using technology that allows students and professors to see and talk with one another in real time. Students will be graded on their work by faculty and earn college credit if they get passing grades.

Other collaborations have promised to figure out a way to offer credit or other kinds of credentials for large-scale online courses, called massive open online courses, or MOOCs—something that would threaten what has until now been a tightly held monopoly among traditional universities.

EdX, launched by MIT and Harvard earlier this year, plans to use private companies that will charge a fee to test students at examination centers around the world. Coursera, which includes Princeton, Columbia and Stanford, has proposed letting students take assessments online—and monitoring them as they do so via webcam.

On Tuesday, the American Council on Education said it would review a small number of Coursera classes, and may recommend that universities provide credit for them. Even if it does, however, such a recommendation would not be binding.

Semester Online, on the other hand, planned “from the very beginning” to offer credit, says Ed Macias, provost of Washington University in St. Louis, another member school. “That’s built into our model.”

The initiative also includes Brandeis, Duke, Emory, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Rochester, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt. More universities may be added by the time the first courses are offered next fall, organizers say.

Although they were reluctant to say their model is a repudiation of MOOCs, several provosts of these institutions described it as a logical evolution of online higher education.

The earliest online courses were provided “for credit by schools you [had] never heard of,” such as the now-ubiquitous University of Phoenix, says Jim Dean, dean of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Then the MOOCs were about courses from schools you’ve heard of, but not for credit. Now you’re seeing courses for credit by schools you’ve heard of.”

Kersh said the scale of the wholesale model is larger than many faculty are comfortable with, while Semester Online classes will be a manageable size.

MOOCs “are sexy and exciting because they’re new and different, but as a teacher, I’ve taught classes, and, to me, large means 200, not two million,” Kersh said. “We want to deliver the kind of highest-quality educational experience that the United States has been the world leader in—and to abandon that for the sake of a massive global experience feels like something special has been lost.”

Still, a few universities are hedging their bets. Duke, Emory and Vanderbilt are members of both Semester Online and Coursera.

One thing the new collaboration has in common with earlier ones is that the details have yet to be fleshed out. The 10 universities will work with a for-profit company called 2U, which helps provide the infrastructure and support universities need to offer online courses. But the cost to students and the way that revenues will be split among participating schools, among other things, are still being negotiated, according to Macias.

“We thought it would be good to announce what we’re doing so people could hear about it,” he says.

A 2U spokesman, Chance Patterson, says tuition will likely be equal to what the universities charge for brick-and-mortar classes.

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