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At 2U, Aiming To Disrupt the Learning Curve

Education technology company packed with Colonials reimagines college life online.

June 23, 2015

by Gray Turner

“Let’s change the way people think about online education.” 

For the past seven years, that’s been the mantra of Chip Paucek, BA ’92, and dozens of GW alumni who are a part of 2U Inc., an education technology company based half an hour outside D.C., in Landover, Md. 

And the company’s mission is nothing less than that. While many still view online learning as secondary to traditional campus learning, 2U is attempting to shift that image. And its unique take on online education has already attracted colleges and universities from across the country, including at GW, and has fueled the company’s rapid rise.

2U has 20 programs with 13 partner universities and has opened offices in New York, Los Angeles, North Carolina and Hong Kong. Along the way, it’s helped to provide a new standard of online education for thousands of students.

Mr. Paucek, the co-founder and CEO of 2U, was the first in his family to attend college.

“GW completely changed my life—it turned me into the person that I am today,” the Columbian College graduate says. “GW is hugely important to my life story and the story behind 2U.”

GW is also a part of the story of 2U’s general counsel, Todd Glassman, BBA ’92; its executive vice president for brand and product marketing, Mark Mashaw, BA ’92; and its regional executive vice president for graduate programs, Jason “JZ” Zocks, BBA ’92. 

It was on GW’s Foggy Bottom Campus that the three 2U executives and its co-founder became friends as freshmen in 1988. For Mr. Paucek, Mr. Glassman, Mr. Mashaw and Mr. Zocks, their time at GW was transformational.

“We had a real community of people at GW,” says Mr. Glassman, whose nephew is a current GW student and 2U intern. “That community was a very important part of our education.” Mr. Paucek says it’s that sense of community that has been missing from online programs."

“The GW community was so important to us while we were students,” he says. “It means something to be a part of the community at a great school, and we thought we could bring this experience to online education, too.”

There are a lot of moving parts to retooling how the world thinks about online education. 2U staff is involved in every level of launching a school’s program and helping to run it: market research, recruiting, admissions counseling, program development, state and national regulations compliance, operations, data analysis and student advising.

The goal throughout is to ensure that the quality of the online programs matches the quality that students come to expect from 2U partner schools like GW, Georgetown and the University of Southern California.

“We have to become experts in understanding the field of study, the student body, the professors, the classes so there is no distinction between on campus and online,” says Hilary Swaim, BA ’11, vice president for brand marketing at 2U.

The staff works closely with each school and program to develop the right blend of videos, live classes and even real-world learning experiences. The end result is a learning environment that reaches for the quality and depth of traditional programs and provides a campus experience—where cohorts of online learners grow together and stay connected after earning their degrees—from a virtual classroom.

GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health offers two graduate-level degree programs through its partnership with 2U: a Master of Public Health and an Executive Master of Health Administration. 

“What separates 2U from other online providers is that our programs are taught by school faculty members,” Mr. Mashaw says. “When you’re enrolled in GW’s public health program, you are being taught by the same renowned faculty and professionals as the students on campus.”

GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health started its partnership with the company in 2012, but 2U has tapped into the talent at GW since its early days.

Blair Gardner, BBA ’10, MS ’11, director of web strategy, remembers that there were only 18 full-time employees when he started at 2U as an intern in 2009. He was drawn in by the company’s mission to legitimize online education and was “hooked” by the enthusiasm and opportunities at 2U. 

Ms. Swaim, who started as an intern with Mr. Gardner, says she never planned to work for an online education startup, but the challenge of working at a new company that “needed help with a little bit of everything” interested her.

“We realized when we were interning together that we were part of something special,” she says.

When Mr. Gardner’s GW roommate of four years, Ed Goodwin, BA ’09, graduated into a tough job market, he recruited Mr. Goodwin as a 2U intern. Now senior director of investor relations at 2U, Mr. Goodwin believes that one of the company’s biggest strengths is the interaction between every piece of the organization, every staff member.

“The culture here is about giving people the opportunity to challenge themselves and challenge others,” he says. “It’s about giving people the freedom to raise their hand to say, ‘This could be done better.’ Knowing that your input is valued and needed is a big part of why we’re so successful and why we love working here.”

All told, more than 45 employees of 2U hail from GW, and students from Foggy Bottom are regularly a core part of the company’s annual crop of interns. “Early interns and employees from GW were really driven and smart and knew how to think—when you see that pattern, you go back to the well,” Mr. Zocks says.

Along the way, the company has helped provide a new standard of online education for thousands of students. 

“It makes me really excited that this company allows people to have broader access to education than was possible online before,” says Chip Paucek, the co-founder and CEO. “And to do so, to succeed with the help and influence of so many fellow GW alumni—that’s special.”