By EMILY WOOD
Wood_Final Article PictureElizabeth Steffel, a motivated student with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Human Development, knew that she wanted to attend a top-notch college to pursue her masters in social work. Married and in her late 20’s with a baby and a toddler, Steffel feared she would have to sacrifice going to a good university to accommodate her husband’s job, which sent the family moving with little notice. How could she attend an MSW program without the risk of having to move to another city and transfer credits? How could she balance family and school?

The answer, it seemed, was in the cloud: “By going with an online program, I was able to go to a good school and know that no matter what happened with my husband’s job, I could stay in school.” Steffel was not without doubts, however. She worried about the quality of online programs; “when I was an undergrad, Internet classes were what the lazy kids took, and that was exactly what I didn’t want.”

Along with a growing number of students, Steffel decided to enroll in an online program, the MSW@USC, and what she found, surprised her.

Online higher education programs have existed for nearly two decades now, but in the past have been criticized for lacking quality, particularly those associated with for-profit institutions. However, in recent years, highly selective universities, recognizing the appeal of online education to many students, have begun to cultivate their own programs—programs that go far beyond the old standards in distance learning. The growing list includes UC Berkeley, the University of Southern California (USC), Syracuse University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, the University of North Carolina (UNC), Simmons College, American University, Northwestern, Southern Methodist University (SMU), Washington University in St. Louis, Boston University, Brandeis University, Pepperdine University, Kent State University, and others.

No longer do these programs consist of Web pages with simple text, but through innovative use of technology, they seek to provide students with an experience equivalent to that of a traditional classroom, and according to some, even a superior one.

A 2011 Survey of Online Learning found that 6 million students are taking at least one online course, and that number increases each year, according to the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board. And, educational models that featured a combination of online and live instruction were found to have stronger learning outcomes than did live instruction alone, according to a U.S. Department of Education study.

Some of the most popular programs are masters in business, communications, teaching, and nursing degrees, all available online from revered institutions that make it possible for students to pursue their degrees from top schools while continuing to live and work anywhere. But just what about these programs are making them so popular?

Equality of Opportunity and Experience: One of the biggest draws of distance learning programs, especially on the graduate level, is that students anywhere can receive a degree from a top-ranking institution. Not only does this mean students in rural areas, but also students in the military or partners of military members, and students with disabilities.

“We have a fair number of students with disabilities,” says Paul Maiden, Executive Vice Dean at the School of Social Work at USC. “These are students who could not maneuver well around the campus or their disabilities are otherwise restrictive,” he says, but the online program makes getting an MSW possible for them.

The School of Social Work at USC offers an online MSW (MSW@USC), which Maiden has taught for, and was instrumental in bringing about. The program now includes online students from 49 states and 6 countries.

Another area where online programs have made strides is curriculum and assignments. According to Maiden, “Curriculum-wise it’s the same program. You get the same degree, and the students do the same work. The syllabus is the same, and the assignments are the same.” The admission standards are also the same for online and on campus students. Maiden says the difference arises in the division of class time: “at a traditional college, students come to a class and it’s a lot of one-way communication where you come in and listen to a lecture. But in the VAC its actually more intimate than the traditional classroom,” he says. The VAC is the Virtual Academic Center—the platform on which the MSW@USC classes take place, and where students gather virtually.

In the VAC, “class time is split in half,” Maiden says. The first half is content that students review each week on their own time as suits their schedule, and the second half is a live teaching and discussion portion. “This means that the class is not about regurgitating what they’ve seen or read. Its really adding to it,” Maiden says.

Leslie Wind, a professor who teaches one of the online courses, explains that each week, asynchronous material including videos, filmed lectures, reading, and response exercises with immediate feedback, become available to students prior to the live portion of the class. “Students have the opportunity to send me any questions during this time.” Then, “during my live sessions, I review the highlights of the material from the asynchronous portion, answer any questions that students have, go over areas that students struggled with, and then we have a discussion,” she says. Each class she also leads an exercise with the students. Wind is a clinical associate professor and associate dean at USC.

At USC, faculty agree that the online program forges an intimate connection between professor and student. “When I’m teaching in the VAC all of the students are literally 15 inches from my face. I can see all of their little squares on my screen. Everyone is sitting in the front row basically,” Maiden says.

Steffel, the young MSW student, says that you log on, “and you’re staring at a screen and there’s like 10 to 15 kids staring back at you, as well as the professor.” She says on the VAC she feels more involved because she can see everyone’s faces, and “you can immediately tell when someone’s not paying attention.” This motivates students to really participate in class, she says.

Connecting Face to Face and Screen to Screen: Nothing beats chatting with a professor in person after class. Talking through paper ideas, receiving advice, and asking for extra help. How does this happen in an online course? “They can set up an appointment just like they would on campus,” says Maiden. He himself logs on to the VAC while at his desk and works, staying online so that students can login and meet with him virtually whenever they want to during scheduled office hours. Maiden says students like that because they can do it anytime and don’t have to travel to campus.

Steffel agrees that VAC students have a real connection with professors. “Even though I’ve never physically been in the same room as my professors, they’ve been more involved and more supportive and have been more mentoring, than I ever had in undergrad,” she says.

“I connected really well with my professor for one of my classes first semester, and she encouraged me to submit one of my papers to be published, and it was published in ‘Foster Focus Magazine’,” she said. It did not stop there; another professor encouraged her to get involved with an organization, and “it resulted in my being on Wisconsin public television, and public radio, and giving all of these speeches,” Steffel says.

Like Steffel, Rebecca Chase, a 28-year-old student in the MSW@USC says, “I was very surprised at the connection that I’ve made with my peers and my professors. I assumed that I would come to class, do my work, and get my degree. I never imagined the close friends that I would make.”

The New Classroom: However, none of this teaching and learning would work well without the many innovations in online classroom platforms that have taken place in recent years. Many schools have partnered with companies such as Pearson/Embanet, Knewton, and 2U, a Maryland-based technology company that provides advanced and need-specific platforms for distance learning programs (Full disclosure: a family member works at this company).

Text on a page and recorded lectures certainly cannot yield qualified nurses, midwives (yes, Georgetown does have an online degree for this), data scientists, or social workers. The MSW@USC program overcame this problem by partnering with 2U to form an online classroom platform that can support document sharing, video presentations, and divide students into private group breakout sessions. And using a split screen, professors can also give control of the classroom to a student to present papers or PowerPoints.

Creating Community Culture Online and Off: How do you give distance-learning students a sense of school spirit and community? At the MSW@USC, this involvement is supported by nearly 500 student clubs and organizations that meet on the VAC platform including “Phi Alpha Honor Society,” the “Virtual Academic Center Student Caucus,” “Military Wives,” and “Veterans Who Served in Iraq.” Events and seminars on campus are also streamed live on the VAC, and of course VAC students are invited to attend graduation on campus. “At the graduation last May, we had more people graduating from the online program than we did from the ground,” Maiden says.

Chip Paucek, CEO at 2U says that through the online platforms that 2U creates, “We really do believe that in our programs students are becoming Trojans, Tar Heels, and Hoyas, not just masters graduates. They’re becoming full members of the community.”

Internships and Placements Anywhere: For the MSW@USC, internships and placements are critical—all social work students must complete a placement where they gain real clinical experience. For the MSW@USC and the other programs that they partner with, 2U locates a placement for the student within 50 miles of where they live, Maiden says. The MSW@USC works with 6500 agency contacts across the country and maintains a faculty dedicated to conduct supervision with students. The program has even begun to find placements for international students and military members/spouses abroad. (The MSW@USC is popular among those interested in military issues because the program offers a military sub concentration that prepares students to work with military, veterans and their families).

Paucek, says that placements and internships are a critical part of the learning experience, and that’s why 2U devotes so many resources to sourcing them for each program. “As an example, in our Georgetown nursing programs, one of our degrees is a masters degree in midwifery. You wouldn’t want to go to the midwife who delivered the virtual baby, right?”

Online as Good as On Campus: Paucek says that companies that treat online education the way 2U does, can really create a degree that is in every way equal to an on campus program. In fact, while he thinks there will always be a place for on campus classrooms, Paucek says that, “if its done the right way, these online programs frankly rival campus programs.” Here are a few of the reasons why:

  • Smaller class sizes. MSW@USC, for example averages fewer than12 students per class. The average class size across all of 2U’s programs is 10.4 students per class.
  • Because faculty for online masters and doctoral programs live across the country and even abroad, classes run in many time zones. This means that students on the West Coast can select morning classes taught by professors on the East Coast and be able to do it before work. More classes at more times means working full time and going to school is easier to arrange. As Paucek explains, “For the first time ever you don’t have to quit your job and pick up your life to attend one of the top 20 B-schools [business schools] in the country.” Paucek himself is attending the MBA program at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Students no longer have to live in a big city or a specific city to get a degree from a world-class institution.
  • Making the grade while still making bank. Paucek says, “it’s a pretty substantial change to your overall debt burden if you’re keeping your job while you’re in the online program.”
Confused on how to find a quality distance learning masters degree program? Chip Paucek, CEO at 2U shares a few simple tips.

Confused on how to find a quality distance learning masters degree program? Chip Paucek, CEO at 2U shares a few simple tips.

Marching to the Millennial Drumbeat: In the 16 graduate programs that 2U partners with, half of all students are young Millennials (the other half are older professionals returning to school). For young people like Steffel and Chase, distance learning can help bridge the gap between career, school, and family. “I was working full time, and a new mom, so I was hesitant to make a commitment that had me away from home so much,” Chase says. “When I heard about USC’s Virtual Academic Center, I researched the validity of their online master’s degree,” and after seeing that it included both asynchronous content and live class time, “it made my decision easy.”

And its no surprise really that a generation raised on Facebook, Instagram, and Skype, should warm to the idea of class happening in the cloud too. Millennials have been recognized for their give-nothing-up approach to life—they want it all, internships, flexible hours, work, travel; and distance learning programs may provide an increasingly important means of achieving the best of everything lifestyle young people want today.

The Future of Distance Learning: Maiden and Paucek are both quick to say that distance learning will never eliminate the traditional campus, however, both see distance learning programs as a key facet of elite universities, moving forward. “Right now we’re at the forefront of a very long story of change in higher education,” Paucek says. He says that technology and platforms like the ones 2U makes are “reshuffling the deck for higher education. Schools that do this are going to win—its just too good.”