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The anti-MOOC? Small costly online courses

Students pass under the campus archways at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

There's a moment in John Covach's course on the history of rock music when he takes apart the Beatles song that launched the British Invasion.

"It turns out that about 95 percent of the musical features of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" are actually in the American popular music tradition," Covach says.

Intrigued? Until now only students at the University of Rochester could take Covach's class. Starting next fall it'll be open to students at Duke, Northwestern and Vanderbilt -- online. Rochester is one of ten universities teaming up to offer online courses to one another's students. Students from outside can also apply. Unlike massive online courses, these classes will be small.

"What we're trying to do is create a smaller, more intimate teaching environment -- one in which, if we have 25 or 30 students, it might even be possible on a single screen to have those students the equivalent of Skyped-in," says Covach.

Think the opening credits of "The Brady Bunch." Also unlike most free online courses, students will earn full college credit. Ed Macias, provost of Washington University in St. Louis, says, "we want the online learning experience to be as rich and robust as that we already have in our in-classroom experience."

Speaking of rich, that experience will cost just as much as traditional classes -- roughly $4,000 a course.

Anya Kamenetz, who writes about innovation in higher ed, says part of the promise of technology is to bring costs down: "If you want to charge that premium price, I think you have to provide a premium experience, and I don't think that video chat is going to do that -- at least not the way that I've seen it."

Founders of the program, called Semester Online, say the goal isn't to bring down costs, at least for now. It's to reach students wherever they are.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.
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