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Online learning: the big man on campus

With thousands of students taking online course work from the University of Phoenix Online, the school is a clear leader in enrollment. CEO Brian Mueller chats about the structure of the program, and lifelong learning.

Over the past year, dozens of readers have written in to tell us their stories of being downsized as their companies cut costs, and to ask questions about what to do next. One of their most frequent questions is whether they should go back to school and get an advanced degree in business management or some other post secondary program.

We always try to get more information before dispensing advice. Whether or not they should go back to school is relative to their circumstances. It may be better to just try for a certification rather than another degree. Even if they choose to go for an advanced degree, typically they have a lot of commitments–such as kids, mortgages, and other debt–that require a nontraditional approach to learning. For many of these folks, online learning is the only option.

With more than 65,000 students taking course work completely online from The University of Phoenix Online, the school is a clear leader in enrollment. I spoke with Brian Mueller, CEO of The University of Phoenix, about the structure of the program, student accountability, and lifelong learning.

You have tens of thousands of students working towards degrees without any face-to-face component. How do you ensure that they are processing the information they need to work in the fields they’re training for?

We have an asynchronous program with 24/7 Internet access. Though it’s instructor-led, it’s highly interactive and very collaborative. Each course consists of 10 to 13 students working together. Courses are very intensive; students take one course at a time and each course takes six weeks.

Each week is a discrete learning unit and is broken down into sections. The early part of the week is the content part; students are required to read a book or visit our extensive library to read journal articles or other materials. Later in the week, students receive a text lecture with discussion questions. Discussion questions are the focal part of the requirement. Students are graded on their participation in discussions, which are evaluated both in terms of quality and quantity.

The other primary evaluation component relates to the students’ learning team. The class is divided into groups of three or four students. Students are required to complete a major project or paper as part of the learning team and that is turned in on Sunday. Then the cycle starts over with content in the early part of the week, lecture and discussion questions on Thursday, and another major assignment for five weeks.

How does that structure ensure that students learn what they need to know?

We believe that the highly collaborative nature of the learning replicates the way these students must work in their careers. Rather than each individual student taking online exams to prove some body of knowledge, students have to rely on each other and help each other learn. Not only does it better replicate actual working environments, it’s easier to ensure fairness in the online environment.

What technology platform runs all the collaborative stuff?

The platform is a special product we co-designed with Microsoft, grounded in Outlook Express technology. We needed a readily available e-mail platform on which to build a collaborative environment.

In many ways, online learning is more susceptible to cheating than traditional classroom methods. At least that’s one of the objections we hear when people discredit online degrees as “mail-order degrees.” How do you control cheating with your platform?

Good question. In a typical university setting, you never can control this. Notes and tests are available online. A certain percentage of 500 kids in an auditorium will be able to sneak the answers in and fill in the right dots without knowing the right answers. So cheating is somewhat problematic in any setting.

I think it’s less problematic in our setting because there’s not a lot of test taking. Students do a lot of reading, a lot of writing, a lot of discussion submission, and submit a lot of assignments. Instructors get very familiar with students’ writing styles in the discussions. If a student got help from someone else on their discussion submissions, instructors would know right away. They watch this very carefully and stay alert to non-original discussion participation.

Also, the tools are getting more and more sophisticated in controlling cheating. As this trend continues, online learning will become more reliable than classroom learning in many disciplines. Our model is the biggest asset here. Small group, instructor-led, asynchronous, daily participation is a lot less problematic.

You list instructors from all walks of life on your Web site. With the great variety of individuals and backgrounds, how do you insure that instructors are teaching properly and grading students fairly?

We provide a significant amount of faculty training. First, they receive 12 weeks of training on grading: grade variance and evaluating papers. Second, we have a rigorous process of evaluating instructors: They are all assigned a numerical score after every class and, based on that, we assess whether they need more training. Third, we have quality control reviews of every class. All the discussions and assignments are permanently stored for every course and we have independent reviewers ensure that faculty lectures and discussion responses are appropriate.

I would think this is another area that favors online learning over classroom learning. Rather than have verbal lectures and discussions that are never stored, you have an archive of every word written between every instructor and every student.

Unlike traditional classrooms, we can go into that course and evaluate every single thing. This also helps with dispute resolution; it’s never a he-said, she-said thing.

How do you choose your faculty?

We have tough criteria. First, they have to have an advanced degree. Most of our instructors have Ph.D.s, but the minimum is a masters degree. Also, they must have a five-year track record of success in an area that they teach. And they must be currently working in that area. Since most of our degrees are career related, we are somewhat unique in that we don’t have professors who are removed from careers. Our faculty are all currently employed in their fields.

It seems you add new program every year. What new programs will be available in the coming months and years?

Right now we offer degrees in business management, a lot of IS and IT programs, nursing and health professions,and education and counseling. We also offer programs for engineers and software integrators, and we just started a criminal justice program. So you can see, our programs are very career oriented, and we will add programs as professional needs dictate. We have not yet moved into more liberal arts or core type courses for degrees, but we haven’t ruled it out as something to offer in the future.

One of the things that really stands out on your Web site is the focus on values as part of the curriculum in each class. What are the values that you try to instill in the online courses?

A foundational component to all our curriculum is an ethical value structure. This is more critical today than ever in light of what’s going on with many publicly traded companies.

We’re trying to affect not only the cognitive but also the affective aspects of our students. We don’t think about these programs as a one-time thing; we want them to be just the beginning of a lifelong learning quest. Our students are not just consuming learning in typical ways, but they’re becoming people who continue to grow on their own from our learning system. Graduates have lifetime free access to our library, which is the world’s largest online library.

Building the perfect CS program

Interview with Roger Schank, chief education officer of Carnegie Mellon West

What programs do you offer?

We offer master’s programs in the computer sciences for people with or without prior experience in the computer sciences.

How did this program come to be?

I am a retired professor who had specialized in artificial intelligence at Northwestern University. While I was at Northwestern, in researching how to teach computers to learn, we found out that they don’t learn the way we were teaching humans in the classroom. Well, if computers don’t learn that way, why should humans? So I started designing curriculum that actually teaches humans, as opposed to the old fashioned ways that don’t teach humans. Most of my methods were designed for online courses, but their success has also affected classroom teaching. People started revising their classroom methods and throwing out the system that didn’t work when it was introduced in the 1800s but somehow continues to be used today.

After I retired from Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon called me to start its West campus in the Bay Area. After we developed the courses and launched the program, we realized that the courses could be taken by anyone, anywhere. We also realized that you don’t have to start at a certain time and end at a certain time. So we now accept applications from anywhere at any time.

How does your program differ from other online learning options?

Most online programs replicate traditional classroom learning. You study a certain text, listen to a lecture, and take a test. In our learn-by-doing Masters program, students work with a top faculty or professional mentor on a project in much the same way they would work in software engineering jobs. And rather than working individually with their computers, we place them in small teams that either meet online or in person on a regular basis to discuss their work.

How do they meet face to face?

We try to place them in groups by geographic area. If we have three or four students in Chicago, for example, we’ll encourage them to meet at the coffee shop rather than online. While the face-to-face component is not a requirement, most students prefer it if it is an option for them.

You mentioned that your program is affecting the way others view learning, both online and in the classroom. Are there plans for Carnegie Mellon to expand beyond its Masters of Computer Science degree?

We don’t have specific plans for that right now, but it is a distinct possibility in the future.

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