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Expanding the Classroom

Q&A: Exploring the global role and reach of learning online at Northwestern

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February 4, 2010 | by Wendy Leopold
CHICAGO --- There’s a saying that distance education is anything beyond the 10th row of a lecture hall. But that’s not what Thomas Gibbons means when he talks about distance learning.

Gibbons is dean of Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies, which, in 2007, became the first and only Northwestern school to offer a master’s degree program entirely online.

Today that program is one of two distance learning master’s degree programs offered by the School of Continuing Studies. A third -- a master’s degree program in computer information systems -- is expected to launch next fall.

The master’s degree program in medical informatics -- the first online degree program -- provides graduates with the education required for technology positions across the entire spectrum of health care delivery. Students in this growing field include physicians, nurses, information or software specialists and engineers.

The second online master’s degree program in public policy and administration prepares graduates for positions in public advocacy, policy development or policy implementation.

With time at a premium and new technologies making high quality and interactive online learning possible, greater numbers of American adults than ever are enrolled in online classes. In fall 2008, more than 4.6 million adults were enrolled in at least one online course. And a number of Northwestern’s peer institutions, including Harvard, University of California-Berkeley, Princeton, and Stanford, are offering distance learners the opportunity to audit lectures via iTunes University or their own Web sites.

Dean Gibbons recently shared his thoughts about distance learning in a discussion with Wendy Leopold.

Do you see distance learning as inevitable?
I do. And it’s not just inevitable. It’s already taking place. I see it as just one element of a global strategy. Look at Northwestern. We’ve got a campus in Qatar. As universities become more global, they are not going to be able to have the kind of reach that gives students access to their superior faculty without technology. At the School of Continuing Studies, we are developing expertise in distance learning that I feel confident will benefit not just our own school but Northwestern as a whole.

Many people think of correspondence courses or taped lectures when they hear the words distance learning. Is that a fair description?
Absolutely not. That misses the important elements of group and faculty/student interaction. I’ve taught an online course in conflict resolution and done online training for lawyers and judges in which most of the class revolved around group discussions and group projects. The level of the group discussion was very high and fruitful, although my jokes never seem quite as funny as they do in the classroom. The big issue in distance education is how to create a community of engaged learners. Distance learning is not only about lectures. There’s lots of synchronous (same time) learning and discussion that goes on. And it’s also about providing student services. There’s increasing experimentation with webinars, virtual information sessions and virtual graduations. Obviously the core things -- registration, payment and library access -- are all in place, but the area of student services is still an evolving field in distance education. We want our online Northwestern students sitting at their computers wearing purple.

Tell me about the online medical informatics master’s degree program.
We launched the master’s program in medical informatics in January 2007, and it continues to be very popular program today. It is offered in partnership with Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Feinberg administrators and faculty came to us with the idea for an online informatics master’s program, knowing that the School of Continuing Studies had the ability to grant the degree, develop a high quality curriculum with the medical school and reach an online market they couldn’t reach. The result is a pioneering program in a relatively new but increasingly important health care field. The program not only received accreditation from the North Central Commission on Accreditation (NCA) but also an award for creative academic programming.

Tell me about the public policy master’s degree program.
We recently launched a second NCA-accredited online master’s degree program in public policy administration. Thirty-five students began that program in the fall; another 21 students entered in winter quarter. Before that, in fall 2006, we launched what’s called a “blended” or “hybrid” program in leadership and organization behavior leading to an undergraduate degree. That blended program is taught half online and half in the classroom. Although it’s not technically distance learning, it served us a valuable learning experience in distance education and is still offered today. We also offer the leadership and organization behavior program completely “on-ground,” so our students can choose how they wish to take it.

Are there more distance education initiatives in the works?
We expect to launch a third all-online master’s degree program in computer information systems next year. This is a program we currently offer in a traditional classroom format. In addition, we’re in discussions with the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science about a possible joint master’s degree program. The School of Continuing Studies presently offers a non-credit online certificate program in decision making for climate change with the University of British Columbia, University of Washington and University of California, Irvine. Each university offers an online course as part of that certificate program. We are talking with the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences about piloting some undergraduate courses in summer 2011. Some of our peer institutions, including Stanford and Vanderbilt, are offering summer courses online. Northwestern students may want to take a class in the summer but don’t necessarily want to remain on campus in order to take it. If they take a Northwestern summer class online, they can be home or anywhere else they may want to be. It’s the best of both worlds.