On Campus

Online learning platform 2U enters the mainstream and expands to more colleges at Syracuse University

Tatiana Diaz | Staff Illustrator

Although higher education has been generally slow to adapt to new technology, SU has formed partnerships with 2U, an online education company, in numerous schools and colleges in recent years.

UPDATED: May 2, 2017 at 1:10 p.m.

Every day, thousands of Syracuse University students boot up their laptops to go to class from the comfort of their own homes.

They all open the same program, 2U, and watch the squares on the screen fill up with live video streams of people — their classmates. In the center is their professor, who could be signing on from anywhere in the world, as well.

Some say these students represent the future of education, particularly at the graduate level. Although higher education has been generally slow to adapt to new technology, SU has formed partnerships with 2U, an online education company, in numerous schools and colleges in recent years. While early phases have been challenging and sometimes controversial, professors and administrators said they see online learning — and 2U — as a key tool in the survival of their graduate programs.

“Obviously our mission is education in large part. Three years ago we had very little online education at all at Syracuse University,” SU Chancellor Kent Syverud said in a recent interview with The Daily Orange. “So, in some sense, we as a university were not involved in a significant area where education is occurring and is going to occur more and more in the future, particularly at the graduate level.”

Syverud has a history with 2U. He helped implement an online Master’s in Legal Studies degree at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, where he was dean before coming to SU.

Across campus, and around the United States, administrators and educators are concerned about the future of higher education. The dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University said in 2016 that traditional lectures were quickly becoming antiquated and that technology was pushing higher education into the online space, per The New York Times.

Leaders at Syracuse University echoed his feelings, adding that declining enrollment and increased competition for students has pushed them to think of new approaches to education. 2U provides a platform and development support for online degrees throughout the country, generating profit through shared revenue streams with their partner schools.

The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Martin J. Whitman School of Management were early adopters of 2U programming.

Whitman had been offering distance-learning Master of Business Administration classes long before 2U, though. The school started the program 40 years ago, according to Whitman Magazine, and in 2001 renamed it to iMBA. In the last few years, though, it was experiencing declining enrollment, said Patrick Penfield, professor of supply chain practice at Whitman.

Penfield taught as part of that program, for which it was normal to teach only one section of a given class that would have 20 students in it, he said. Now, with the MBA@Syracuse program run by 2U, he has eight sections with 20 students each.

“Anytime you have more people coming into the program, it’s going to help the school exponentially because now our reputation grows, more alums, more people,” Penfield said. “It’s a good thing for Syracuse University in total.”

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While the quality of online education programs has been widely debated, 2U’s particular model seeks to eliminate that. 2U partners with carefully chosen leaders in particular fields — such as Newhouse and Whitman — and amplifies the school’s professors and other academic capabilities, putting programs under the university’s control, according to 2U’s website. SU administrators said this is what makes 2U one of the best platforms for online learning available today.

It also utilizes a program called Adobe Connect to create a more intimate classroom environment, which SU professors said is a major selling point. Adobe Connect allows students and the section instructor to simultaneously live stream themselves to each other and appear on screen, much like how everyone is face-to-face in a classroom. This type of meeting — called a synchronous session — occurs once a week.

“I don’t think I would go back to teaching online without it,” said Adam Peruta, an assistant professor of magazine journalism.

Peruta taught online using Blackboard for years before joining the team at Newhouse developing the 2U program, Communications@Syracuse. He said it was difficult to form relationships with students through Blackboard because there was no live video portion. Now, he said he feels like he knows his online students just as well as his students on campus.

The programs are challenging to develop, though. Both 2U and their partner schools must invest significant resources to get the classes and other features built from scratch. Peruta said he built his first course in about five to six months, which was intensive even with a waiver allowing him to teach fewer classes on campus.

“It was a little challenging as a new faculty member, right, because you’re trying to essentially get your feet on the ground and learn how everything works,” Peruta said. “So it was a little bit overwhelming at first.”

Increased faculty and administrative support are also required, and both Newhouse and Whitman have had to hire adjunct faculty to lead sections, some of whom do not have significant prior teaching experience but who are SU graduates in the field.

Amy McHale, the assistant dean for master’s programs in Whitman, and Kelly Lux, the assistant director of Communications@Syracuse, both said the hiring process is still thorough. Professors also said that they are able to correct issues if one occurs in a section of their class.

An attempt by SU’s College of Law to offer a partially online law degree developed with 2U has been slightly more controversial than the other programs. The degree, which would require more on-campus visits than the Newhouse or Whitman programs, was proposed about a year ago and would be the second online degree for practicing law in the country.

It faced immediate skepticism from some people, though, who were concerned about how it would affect the reputation of the College of Law in a field that is steeped in tradition.

The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, is unsure about it as well. Traditionally, the association limits the amount of a degree that can be earned online, so SU must seek a waiver for this program to maintain accreditation.

The first version of the program presented by the College of Law and 2U was rejected, Dean Craig Boise said. In a statement to The Daily Orange, he said he was committed to the “ongoing” process of getting it approved.

“Legal education is steeped in tradition, and changes of this magnitude rarely happen quickly,” Boise said. “Nevertheless, I believe that the College of Law must take a leadership role in advancing new formats for the delivery of legal education to meet the evolving needs of our profession and those who would join it.”

Colleen Gibbons, president of the SU Student Bar Association, said there is still much that is unknown about the program, but it has the potential to impact a lot of people who cannot abandon their current lives to study on campus. While she said she agrees that the classroom setting in a law school is particularly important to the learning process, the industry is already in flux as it is.

With a strained job market and the constantly rising cost of higher education, administrators and faculty across campus said that going online is about going where the people are.

And the people have come. Whitman already has over 1,500 students enrolled online after two years, and while Newhouse only has a little over 200, Lux said they have met or exceeded enrollment goals each term. Whitman was also ranked the sixth-best online MBA program in the country for 2017 by Financial Times.

Those who have worked with the program also agreed that recognition as innovative programs — as well as the marketing abilities of 2U — has helped extend the reach of the SU brand.

“I definitely think it keeps us on the forefront,” said Peruta.

– News editor Michael Burke contributed reporting to this article.

Graphics by Andy Mendes | Digital Designer

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this post, Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud was misquoted. Said Syverud: “Obviously our mission is education in large part. Three years ago we had very little online education at all at Syracuse University…” The Daily Orange regrets this error.

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