Semester Online's parent company, 2U, announced last week that the entire consortium would come to an end following the upcoming summer session. The program offers Internet classes for course credit to students at 10 member schools. It launched last Fall after some tumult regarding its member universities—Duke withdrew from its agreement to enter the consortium last April, two other schools also backed out.
"Semester Online was always an experiment," Chance Patterson, senior vice president of communications for 2U, wrote in an email Monday. "The pilot program experienced significant challenges related to the complexities of a consortium structure."
The University entered into an agreement with Semester Online in November 2012, when Provost Peter Lange signed a contract with 2U to introduce Duke as one of 10 member schools in the consortium, which would offer online courses for credit. At the time, however, the Arts and Sciences Council had not yet voted on how online courses could be included in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences curriculum and graduation requirements.
A proposal to grant credit for online classes was put to a vote during the Council's April meeting last year and did not pass, with 14 votes for the policy change and 16 against.
"As council chair, I'm pleased in hindsight with how we handled the proposal," said Tom Robisheaux, chairman of the council and Fred W. Schaffer professor of history.
Although the proposal dealt only with generic policy on online courses for credit and not with the Semester Online partnership specifically, an affirmative vote would have meant automatic participation in the consortium because Duke had already signed the contract with 2U. At the vote, a number of faculty members who spoke against the proposal noted that they took issue not with online education as a whole, but instead with the Semester Online consortium.
“It’s a disaster,” physics professor Steffan Bass, a member of the Executive Committee of Arts and Sciences Council, told The Chronicle after the vote. “It was not voted down because online education is a bad thing. It was voted down on the basis of very political arguments.”
Professors who took issue with Semester Online presented a number of arguments—a perceived lack of transparency from the administration regarding the contract, the prestige of other partner schools and whether the deal would devalue a Duke education.
"Semester Online was very ambitious because it put together so many complicated issues into one," Robisheaux noted. "I wasn't too surprised that they ended the program."
Robisheaux added that he had heard of logistical issues with Semester Online from faculty at member institutions—mainly dealing with how to assign credit and handle registration, even though faculty seemed to like the platform itself.
"In the end, it was too much to disentangle," he said.
Duke faculty's debate on the consortium received considerable media attention. Covered by media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education, Duke's withdrawal was called a "huge disappointment" by 2U CEO Chip Paucek in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.
After the Council's vote forced Duke to back out of the consortium, Vanderbilt University and the University of Rochester also withdrew from Semester Online.
“At Vanderbilt, we were concerned that the decision to charge full tuition for the 2U courses was at odds with our own commitment to meet demonstrated financial need in full for all of our undergraduate students,” Cynthia Cyrus, Vanderbilt’s associate vice provost for undergraduate education, told The Chronicle in June 2013.
She added that Vanderbilt officials were also uncomfortable with 2U's focus on general courses with large potential enrollment over "niche courses" that would broaden Vanderbilt students' access to curricular content.
The final edition of the consortium included Boston College, Brandeis University, Emory University, Northwestern University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Trinity College Dublin, the University of Melbourne, University of Notre Dame, Wake Forest University and Washington University in St. Louis.
Patterson said that the decision to end Semester Online was mutual between 2U and the partner universities.
Discussion on online education has continued at Duke throughout the school year. The Arts and Sciences Council has hosted several forums for faculty and students to examine the possible merits and drawbacks on Internet courses for credit, and the council presented a new proposal on online course credit at their January meeting. The new policy would allow students to take one Internet class for credit each semester—whether from Duke or another accredited university—as long as it is approved by the director of undergraduate studies for the department.
It has not yet been decided when the council will vote on the proposal, Robisheaux said, and he emphasized that the conversation is ongoing.
"Innovation is always going to be by a minority—always going to be a small, bold group of individuals," Robisheaux said. "Some things are going to work and some things are not, so how do we find a place for that while holding ourselves to the high standards of a Duke liberal arts education?"