SXSWedu Session Recap: Desegregating the Online Student

“We all know the back row — the closest seats to the exit. What if we could eliminate it and put every student in the front?” That’s the idea behind 2U’s “student outcomes” approach, as described by the company’s CEO Christopher Paucek. Back in 2008, a team of education entrepreneurs and veterans committed themselves to delivering the best online education in the world — a vision that, at the time, seemed far-fetched. Now, nearly eight years later, the company has served more than 10,000 students worldwide. In his SXSWedu presentation “Desegregating the Online Student,” Paucek addressed the lingering stigma about online degrees and explained the significance of unleashing education from its physical boundaries without sacrificing quality.

All-In Schools

In today’s digital age, it may come as a surprise that skepticism surrounding online education still exists. Since launching 2U, Paucek has learned that people are, in fact, interested in earning a full degree online and being part of something bigger — a reputable institution. But how are students retained? Through equal rights and equal access.

Students enrolled in university-led, 2U-powered online programs are given the same curriculum, faculty and campus access as their on-campus peers. “Students really do become a Trojan, a Tar Heel, a Hoya,” Paucek noted. “We don’t partner with a university unless they agree to provide [online] students with equal rights and access.” This “all in” approach is just one way the company works to integrate online students into the full campus community.

Technology and Content

Part of being “all in” means producing unique course content for students, where professors are delivering both their expertise and their skillset in an interactive, collaborative environment. The 2U-powered online platform allows professors to have live conversations with their students and is set up to encourage frequent discussions and interactions. The combination of synchronous and asynchronous content helps to ensure that every student can grow into a successful leader, manager and creative thinker. Given the right resources, students can be part of a great institution without having to quit their job or relocate somewhere new.

High Engagement

But our next generation of leaders will not grow into their fullest potential if there is a lack of interest or motivation. Therefore, high engagement in the classroom is critical, Paucek said. Through intimate class sizes that average 10–12 students per class, each student has the opportunity to fully engage in class discussions, cultivate meaningful interactions online and off and learn directly from professionals in a more personal way. Additionally, field placements (e.g., placing a student at a real clinic to practice midwifery) and global immersions allow students to gain hands-on experience in the field and meet peers and professors in person.

Student Outcomes

Lastly, Paucek emphasized the importance of putting every student first. “Why should the student have to fit around the degree? Why shouldn’t the degree fit around the student? Some of the best education is possible — online, “ he said. Thousands of people around the world are unable to earn a degree because they can’t leave their job, uproot their family or leave the military. 2U-supported programs are changing lives by allowing those students to be part of world-class institutions no matter where they reside.

Online education is about breaking down barriers so students fully engage. “It takes a time commitment from the universities — it’s not easy,” Paucek said. “But we fundamentally believe this is not just a sustainable enterprise; we are seeing something that is producing the right outcomes.”

Paucek mentioned how students are having incredible experiences — MBA@UNC students have traveled to Shanghai and elsewhere in the world — and two students married after pursuing the same online degree. “You are becoming a member of the [university] because the school made it possible, “ Paucek said.

Fifteen to twenty years from now we may find ourselves looking back on a conversation that is reminiscent of the infamous 1994 Couric and Gumbel exchange about the Internet. What is online education anyway? Can it be any good? Will students feel connected? Given the way things are progressing now, those questions may soon become obsolete.


Kelly Fong is a writer and editor with more than eight years of experience in journalism. She is currently a content editor at 2U, covering SXSWedu in Austin. She lives near Baltimore, MD. If you are interested in learning more about 2U-enabled programs, please visit the find a program page.