Starting next fall, 10 prominent universities, including Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Northwestern, will form...

Share story

Starting next fall, 10 prominent universities, including Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Northwestern, will form a consortium called Semester Online, offering about 30 online courses to both their students — for whom the classes will be covered by their regular tuition — and to students elsewhere, who would have to apply and be accepted and pay tuition of more than $4,000 a course.

Semester Online will be operated through the educational platform 2U, formerly known as 2tor, and will simulate many aspects of a classroom: Students will be able to virtually raise their hands, break into smaller discussion groups and arrange and hold online-study sessions.

The virtual classroom is a cross between a Google+ hangout and the opening sequence of “The Brady Bunch,” where each student has his or her own square, the equivalent of a classroom chair. However, with Semester Online courses, there is no sneaking in late and unnoticed, and there is no back row.

Unlike the increasingly popular Massive Open Online Courses,” or MOOCs, which are free classes offered by universities like Harvard, MIT and Stanford, Semester Online classes will be small — and will offer credit.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“Now we can provide students with a course that mirrors our classroom experience,” says Edward Macias, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at Washington University in St. Louis, one of the participants.

“It’s going to be the most rigorous, live, for-credit online experience ever,” said Chip Paucek, a co-founder of 2U.

For many of the participating schools, which include Brandeis, Emory, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Rochester, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest, Semester Online offerings will be their first undergraduate for-credit online courses, and the first to offer credit to students from outside the universities.

One draw for the schools is the expansion in their course catalogs.

“No university can deliver the full range of courses that both might be interesting and useful and enlightening to our students. Imagine if you don’t have a person who works on the Sahel region in Africa, but another school does,” said Peter Lange, the provost of Duke.

Courses will be offered outside regular classroom hours, as late as 10 p.m., Paucek said, adding that such flexibility would have helped him when he was an undergraduate working his way through George Washington University.

“I’m hoping Semester Online could allow someone like me to really change their debt burden,” he said.

While the cost of Semester Online will be included in tuition for students at the member schools, students outside the consortium will pay about $1,400 per credit hour, or $4,200 to $5,600 per course.

The consortium has not yet set admission standards for outside students. So it is unclear whether Semester Online will be viewed as a backdoor entrance to the participating universities, even though it is not a full degree program.

Mark Mashaw, executive vice president for marketing and communications at 2U, said courses would “be limited to outstanding students from top schools.”

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.