It is coming. After years of forecasting, anticipating and strategizing, online education is making bold strides in elite higher education. Duke reached an important milestone by announcing its collaboration with Semester Online, a platform created by the company 2U that will allow students to take online courses at Duke and nine other universities for credit. Students need not attend any of the consortium universities, as long as they pass Semester Online’s admissions requirements.
For-credit online courses feel inevitable given the growing momentum of online platforms in higher education generally. But Duke’s participation in Semester Online seems to be the result of a thoughtful and productive partnership with 2U. Semester Online will have real benefits for the University.
First, Semester Online courses have the potential to be excellent substitutes for large lecture classes. Learning in large lecture classes traditionally has little to do with in-person interaction with the professor, especially if the professor already posts his or her lectures on a website like Blackboard or Sakai. 2U’s platform will just recreate and streamline that process by transferring it to a convenient online form.
Second, a strong consortium of Semester Online participants means that Duke students will benefit from the wealth of resources at other top universities. If Semester Online flourishes, Duke students could take specific classes at Northwestern University or Washington University in St. Louis that are not offered here. Star professors and unique programs at other universities would suddenly be accessible. Moreover, taking an online class with students at other universities might add an interesting diversity to the virtual classroom.
Third, Semester Online demonstrates Duke’s healthy curiosity in the potential of online education. In an industry crowded with shady, irresponsible and money-hungry players, Duke has found a reputable partner in 2U, whose high-quality online interface and other elite partner universities speaks to its seriousness about creating an exceptional educational experience.
Although we can see for-credit online courses thriving in a certain context, Duke should be wary about Semester Online becoming a too-easy replacement for traditional courses. Duke must draw careful boundaries when considering the future role of online education, especially since students will be receiving credit.
For example, how many Semester Online courses will a student be allowed to take? If a student takes four courses online per semester, a full course load, then he or she will be getting zero face-to-face interaction with his or her professor and peers. Can a Duke education truly omit the in-person classroom experience? What is the value of a physical college campus?
Also, if Semester Online courses prove to be popular and cheap, will professors be pressured to transfer their courses online? Most Duke classes—especially ones involving heavy discussion—do not lend themselves easily to online format. The intimacy of seminar classes must be preserved.
Semester Online is a hopeful foray into for-credit online education. There are more questions: How will non-consortium students apply to take Duke classes? Would Duke consider moving from credit-granting to degree-granting programs? Nevertheless, we approve of Duke’s approach thus far, and we hope the University continues to erect and maintain thoughtful boundaries around this project.