Brave New Online World

By Susan L. Wampler

Academic rigor, integrity and lively community are the hallmarks of USC’s pioneering online degree programs.

Across the university, groups of students completing their master’s degrees in a wide variety of disciplines have been meeting their classmates in person for the first time — at commencement. For many, this is also the first time they set foot on the USC campus.

While these Trojans earn their diplomas online, their curriculum is every bit as rigorous as that of their on-campus counterparts. Their connections to USC, and camaraderie with one another, are just as strong. And their numbers are rapidly growing.

“Eighty-five percent of our online students come to campus for graduation,” says Karen Symms Gallagher, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education. The number of graduates of the school’s online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) has grown tenfold since the program’s launch in 2009. Some 1,200 have completed the program, with enrollees coming from all 50 states and two dozen countries. “We’ve had to move our satellite commencement ceremony from Founder’s Park to the football practice field,” she says.

That growth resonates throughout the university. To date, nine graduate schools offer online degree programs serving more than 4,800 students. The longest-standing program, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s 40-year-old Distance Education Network (DEN@ Viterbi), alone offers some 40 programs, including nearly 140 courses per semester, to students across the U.S. and in 21 countries.

“Every department has at least one online degree offering, but most have several,” notes Kelly Goulis, senior associate dean for graduate and professional programs at the school.

“Total annual revenues for online USC professional, graduate and continuing education programs are expected to reach $114.5 million this year, a figure that may be unprecedented for a top American research university,” USC President C. L. Max Nikias says. “We expect to double our enrollment and degree offerings within five years.”

HIGH DEMAND FOR QUALITY ONLINE EDUCATION

A key tenet of the university’s online strategy is maintaining the academic rigor, integrity and quality of a USC education. Remote students must meet the same admission standards and pay the same tuition as regular students. “It’s the exact same diploma,” says Rebecca Weintraub, director of the Communication Management master’s program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

USC’s remote offerings focus on graduate-level instruction aimed primarily at working professionals. By design, undergraduate education remains a traditional, on-campus experience.

“Those massive free online courses other universities are doing — that’s not the USC model,” Goulis says. “USC is taking our professional programs, [developing] the right models and attracting very strong students who otherwise might not be able to come to campus.”

Frequently uprooted military personnel and their spouses, for instance, are enrolled in a wide range of USC online programs. The Rossier School has increased the number of math and science teaching candidates, which are greatly needed by the education profession. And, Gallagher notes, “They didn’t have to quit their jobs to come here.”

Demand for USC’s online-learning approach is robust.

The USC School of Social Work admitted the first cohort of 80 Master of Social Work students to its Virtual Academic Center in October 2010. By fall 2012, approximately 1,580 were enrolled — outpacing the school’s on-the-ground program, which numbers 1,300. “We’re the first national school of social work,” says Paul Maiden, vice dean. “We drive the agenda [in online learning for the profession].”

Similarly, the USC Davis School of Gerontology was the first to offer a gerontology degree online and now has five Web-based programs.

In fall 2011, the USC Price School of Public Policy established the first online Master of Public Administration (MPA) at a top-10 school. Christopher Weare, program director, says students tell him they had been clamoring to pursue an online MPA but, before USC, “no place worth doing it” offered the degree.

ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL

Each USC online program is custom-built, reflecting the educational needs of the academic discipline. Most sprang from traditional degrees but underwent significant transformation to take advantage of increasingly sophisticated technology and support, as well as assistance with student recruiting. Curriculum design and content remain strictly USC’s purview.

In some courses, students primarily learn on their own schedules within the parameters of set milestones, while in others they meet weekly online for live class sessions. Many programs combine both approaches. A common advantage is that students and faculty can be present for classes even when on vacation, at a conference or traveling for business. And students — often both on-campus and in distance programs — can review archived sessions anytime. Still, not all degree requirements can be met online.

USC Rossier MAT students complete 20 weeks of student teaching.

“We have partnerships with about 1,500 school districts and more than 4,000 schools,” Gallagher says. “From the first day, our students are teaching in the classroom.”

Field placement is the signature feature of social work education. “We have regional field faculty in New England, the Midwest, the Southeast, the Southwest, Southern California and the Northwest,” Maiden says. “They do full reviews and credential the agencies before we place our students.”

Master of Public Health students also complete a culminating practicum in the field, says Luanne Rohrbach, program director.

FOSTERING COLLEGIALITY, HANDS-ON LEARNING

Still other programs bring students together for short-term residencies.

While the Geographic Information Science and Technology program in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences incorporates a substantial hands-on component year-round — with students working on virtual desktops — the program also requires a weeklong field experience at USC’s Wrigley Institute on Catalina Island, now offered nine times a year. “Very few of our peer institutions require field work,” says John Wilson, who launched the program in the late 1990s.

Students in the Master of Academic Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC spend seven days together each spring. They quickly become colleagues, often making presentations together at national meetings. “We’re truly building a learning community,” says the program’s director, Julie Nyquist.

Those in the Keck School’s Executive Master of Health Administration meet in person for two five-day periods, but even those are flexible. “If we have a large international cohort or large number of East Coast-based students, there’s no reason we can’t hold one of the in- residence sessions there,” notes Mike Nichol, program director.

That flexibility is a key hallmark of online learning at USC, as programs are continuously re-evaluated to share advances between online and traditional courses. The result is changes ranging from small tweaks to restructuring of entire programs.

In response to student demand, the USC School of Pharmacy’s Regulatory Science program now enables students to “move back and forth seamlessly between distance courses and live courses at our locations in San Francisco or Los Angeles,” says Frances Richmond, program director. “We’re one big happy family.” Such collegiality, surprisingly, may be even more evident in strictly online courses. “Some students say it’s actually more intimate than a regular classroom because you can’t hide in the back of the room,” Gallagher says.

At USC Annenberg, Neil Teixeira, director of distance learning, fosters intimacy by building social-media networking into the online learning platform “so that students are not forced outside of that [network] to communicate with their classmates.”

Weintraub adds, “The dirty little secret is that the interaction and connection among classmates are actually stronger online.”

USC’s online learning certainly has come a long way since that day in 1972 when the Viterbi School first used microwave technology to beam courses to fewer than 50 engineers. “We will support our faculty and students as they continue to experiment with new digital technologies and new educational paradigms — within classrooms, libraries, laboratories and online — to kindle and maintain a lifelong fire of learning within all of our current and future students,” Nikias says.

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