Redefining online education: Focus shifts to engagement

More and more students are taking courses online.

More and more students are taking courses online. (Credit: More and more students are taking courses online.)

Like online dating before it, online education has surpassed stereotypes and is being embraced by New Yorkers as a real alternative to the brick-and-mortar university experience.

Most NYC-area colleges and universities -- both public and private -- offer some sort of online courses. Classes are sometimes entirely online or a hybrid mix of online and on-campus meet-ups. But more and more universities are also creating unique classes specifically meant for online students, and the focus has shifted to small classes that are highly interactive.

Online classes can help students fulfill post-baccalaureate requirements, switch careers, get masters degrees or certificates. And universities report that enrollment, demand and diversity of offerings are up across the board.

A social experience

Kimberly Tableman, a 36-year-old executive at Pfizer in Connecticut, is getting her Master of Science in Information and Knowledge Strategy from Columbia University's School of Continuing Education. The hybrid program is framed by three five-day residencies in the city, but classes are online. Last semester she took two online classes (Wednesdays and Thursdays from 8-10 p.m.), followed up with coursework during the week.

"I couldn't go to Columbia and be working at Pfizer if I didn't have this program," said Tableman, who hopes her degree (partially paid for by Pfizer) will help her move up the corporate ladder. Her fellow classmates, she says, run the spectrum of industries.

"There are librarians, lawyers, people from Canada, all over the U.S. and Columbia," she says.

Columbia's School of Continuing Education has developed "Networked Learning," their own online education model which allows students and faculty to communicate using social networking and other tool, which Tableman refers to as a "side benefit."

In the fall, they will kick off their Master of Science in Statistics, which is designed to take 16 months. Certificate programs -- including Business, Bio-Ethics and soon-to-be-offered certificates in Actuarial Science and Core Statistics -- can be completed in as little as one semester.

"We realized we could broaden access to students, but our goal was also to provide an experience that was in every way as rigorous and as social as other classes," says Kristine Billmyer, Dean of Columbia's School of Continuing Education.

The social component of online courses is something universities take seriously, and many say it's what differentiates small, specially tailored online courses from MOOC (massive open online course) lectures. MOOCs -- which feature hundreds of students with limited opportunity for interaction -- tend to have dropout rates around 90%.

"Completion rates are low because people feel isolated," says Jeffery Olson, director of online learning at St. John's University. For that reason, his university's online classes -- which run the gamut from Intro to Psychology to Fundmentals of Accounting to Criminal Justice -- focus on student interaction.

"Classes are never larger than 25, and, done right, online students get to know the faculty member and fellow students really well," he says.

"With the technology we have available now, feedback from professors and fellow students can come quickly and easily," says Ted Bongiovanni, director of distance learning at NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Most of the courses offered have around 15 students and differ from other online classes "by intense faculty preparation ... and an emphasis on research-based educational design principles which faculty put into practice," Bongiovanni says.

A sign of success

Educators say they're constantly trying to meet increasing demands for online classes. When St. John's began offering online courses in the spring of 2000, there were seven available per semester. This summer they'll have 246.

NYU's Office of Distance Learning offers nearly 300 online courses each year, about half of which are continuing education, and open to all.

"We cover everything from appraising fine wine to social media marketing," says Bongiovanni. There are also graduate certificates in areas like Enterprise Risk Management and Real Estate.

"Almost anything can be taught online," Bongiovanni says.

And the types of students who take the classes runs the gamut from "students still in school who are looking for other opportunities to people out of college looking to build more practical skills or shift gears," Bongiovanni says.

Unlike many MOOCs, the cost of these small online classes are usually identical to brick-and-mortar, face-to-face classes.

Also, unlike MOOCs, attrition rates are low. "The rate of completion of these degrees is a sign of success," says Columbia's Billmyer. "In our hybrid Information and Knowledge Strategy graduate program, 90 percent of students complete the program within 16 months, which is a much faster rate than the previous on-campus program."

And the reason seems logical. "We're cutting out a lot of the hurdles," she says.

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