Semester Online, a teaching model that enables students to earn credits towards their degree by studying online, is expanding its portfolio of courses, including five business courses offered by the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler business school.

Following a limited trial this autumn, undergraduates who have completed their first year studies – in the US and internationally – will be able to apply for one of 19 courses, offered entirely online, starting in spring 2014.

Each 15-week course, costing $4,200, is provided by one of Semester Online’s consortium of eight US universities, which includes Emory University and Northwestern University.

When the course is completed, credits awarded by the university are transferred to the student’s home institution. Each partner university recognises credits awarded to their students by another consortium member.

“The pilot has been a real success”, says Andrew Hermalyn, executive vice-president of Semester Online. “Students on the courses have been telling us they didn’t expect it to be so rigorous.”

Semester Online differentiates itself from other distance programmes – including Moocs (massive open online courses) – by the level of student participation involved.

Courses are delivered using virtual classroom technology developed by 2U, the company behind Semester Online, which allows students to interact face-to-face in live seminars from around the world.

Simulating the on-campus classroom environment, professors host weekly classes involving a maximum of 20 students. Interactive course content can be accessed from the platform on demand.

Mr Hermalyn says that while student numbers will increase from the new year, class sizes will remain strictly limited. Multiple sections on each course will allow scaling up without undermining quality, he says.

Since launching in 2008, 2U has collaborated with 10 US graduate schools to develop online masters degrees using this virtual classroom technology. Among the company’s partners is Kenan-Flagler, with which it launched the MBA@UNC degree in 2011.

Having contributed to this autumn’s pilot, Kenan-Flagler is to offer five business courses on Semester Online in the new year. “Our experience with 2U [in developing] the MBA@UNC is the reason why we’re taking the lead with Semester Online,” says Susan Cates, executive director of the MBA@UNC programme.

The online provision of courses will provide students with the flexibility to extend their summer internships or to study abroad, says Ms Cates. “Fundamentally, we think that offering courses – rather than a whole degree – is the right way to approach high quality undergraduate level business online.”

Kenan-Flagler is pitching its courses at an introductory level, designed for undergraduates from all academic disciplines. Through these courses, Ms Cates says that the school is looking to meet high demand for business courses among non-business students.

2U, which operates a revenue-sharing model with its partner universities, is looking to expand the Semester Online consortium to include non-US universities by the end of this year.

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