The online program, to be offered by the Yale School of Medicine, would aim to replicate its residential program for training physicians’ assistants. Students would meet in virtual classrooms where they would discuss course material using videoconferencing technology. They would also have to complete field training — accounting for roughly half of the coursework — in person, at Yale-approved clinics near where they live.
It is the second professional school at Yale to try the “blended” model for a graduate program, following the Yale School of Nursing, which opened a partially online doctoral degree in 2011.
Yale has taken an active but measured interest in online education in the past decade. In 2007 it became one of the first elite institutions to post lecture videos online at no charge. In 2011 it began offering online summer courses to small groups of undergraduates for credit. In 2013 it joined with Coursera and started building MOOCs.
But a degree program that includes fully online courses is a step toward a different vision of how Yale and other highly selective traditional universities are likely to incorporate online education. Free online courses might make headlines, but tuition-based professional degrees in high-demand fields such as health care are where online courses, and the companies that help build them, are gaining a foothold.
Other top-tier universities have created online versions of their professional-degree programs, which is something Yale noticed when taking stock of its online presence in 2012. The Johns Hopkins University, for example, offers an online master’s program in public health that delivers about 80 percent of its coursework on the web.
2U, the online “enabler” company that is helping Yale develop the new program, previously built nursing programs at Georgetown University and Simmons College, as well as programs in public health and health administration at George Washington University.
Institutions typically sign contracts with companies like 2U when they want to create new online programs as fast as possible without spending a lot of cash upfront. That is an especially attractive option for universities that are trying to grab a larger chunk of the market for high-demand professional degrees in fields such as health, nursing, data science, and business. It is there that 2U and others have found their sweet spot. The companies provide the technology platform and marketing expertise, and take a large share of the tuition revenues.
Yale would hire new instructors to teach courses in the program, which is still awaiting accreditation approval. The tuition and faculty-to-student ratio would be roughly equivalent to the residential program.
James Van Rhee, director of the program, said he did not know if the online version would be more profitable, but he did expect it would expand the medical school’s reach — especially in rural areas. The institution hopes to increase enrollments from 40, the size of the current program, to around 300.
“I don’t know if it will be cost-efficient for us,” said Robert J. Alpern, dean of the medical school, but “hopefully it will be cost-efficient for the students, because they’ll be able to do it from home.”