Classes are a mouse-click away
By Danielle Masterson
Like many adult students, Mark Napier (MET’04) took classes at night last year. After a long day at work, he would go for a run, take a shower, and have dinner. By 6:30 p.m., he was ready for class. But Napier’s classroom was more than 2,200 miles away from the Boston University campus.
“I have a little office area with a computer set up in the corner of my bedroom at home,” says Napier, a lieutenant in the Tucson, Ariz., Police Department. “It’s nothing fancy, but it’s functional.”
Napier is one of 130 students who finished Metropolitan College’s online criminal justice master’s degree program in May. Like many of his peers in BU’s first online graduating class, he’d never seen the Charles River Campus before traveling to Boston for the 2004 Commencement.
He credits the program with making him a more well-rounded law enforcement officer. “The best thing about the course process was exploring the different views of others, views that if presented in a different forum, I may have been less inclined to listen to,” he says. “In law enforcement, we tend to get fairly set in our ways and certainly in our belief systems. Exploring concepts that were not congruent with my own was an expanding experience.”
MET offered its first class via the Internet in late 2000 and launched its first master’s degree program, in criminal justice, two years later with just 39 students; it now has about 400 students. At present, BU offers five degrees online through MET and Sargent College, with nearly 1,000 students. A sixth program is starting up in January. As well as criminal justice, MET’s degrees are in insurance management and computer science information, and Sargent’s are in physical therapy and occupational therapy.
“We want to offer high-quality educational experiences for students at a distance without compromising the integrity of the learning experience,” says Metropolitan College Dean Jay Halfond.
The online programs are offered through the Division of Extended Education and coordinated by its Office of Distance Education. Besides the MET and Sargent master’s degrees, courses are also offered through the College of Engineering, the School of Medicine, and the School of Education.
Susan Kryczka, the director of the Office of Distance Education, says the University’s online programs “are an excellent way to reach alums who may want to continue their education at BU, but do not live in the area. It is also a way to reach people across the country and world who know BU’s reputation but would never be able to travel to Boston to take advantage of its educational resources.”
Online students must go through the same admissions process as their on-campus counterparts. Once accepted, students log on to BU’s “e-campus” to take courses completely on the Internet and on the standard semester schedule.
Kryczka says BU is not trying “to be all things to all people. We don’t want huge enrollments or every degree online that BU offers on campus.” The office conducts extensive market research to determine which programs to put online. “We have a marketing partner in Canada, Embanet, that had done some market research and discovered a master’s in criminal justice would be very popular,” she says. “We now have the largest criminal justice online program in the country. But we’re more concerned with quality and appropriateness than with money.”
In that vein, each online course is “handmade” and takes five to six months to build. “Our goal is to make students look forward to the next course,” says Kryczka. “We really try to enable students to interact with the material online.”
In the virtual classroom
Instructional graphic designers in the Office of Distance Education work with faculty members to develop the audio, animation, video, illustrations, and Web sites that make up the courses. The office uses two learning management systems, Intralearn and WebCT, to construct them. Before classes begin, faculty members have a face-to-face half-day training session on the software.
A typical online class runs seven weeks, and students are expected to spend at least 20 hours a week on course work. Students can log on to the program whenever they want, but must read lectures before they are taken off-line, usually within a few days. There are also chat rooms, video clips, exercises, posted discussion questions, off-line reading, and e-mail discussions between students and instructors or section facilitators.
“I think the interactive elements are special,” says Kryczka. “We have handmade them, and they are not like their counterparts on campus. The only reason they may be similar is that we may have started with the same two-page syllabus.”
Although teaching online has its challenges, such as learning to use the Internet to its full advantage, it also opens up opportunities, teachers say.
“I have been very impressed with what you can do online with a combination of the discussions and the assignments,” says Robert Cadigan, a MET associate professor, who has taught three online courses. “You can do some creative things with media and have some very good discussion groups that allow students to really engage with each other. When I see students posting their comments, I have been very happy with that aspect of the courses.”
Kryczka says that with the help of the instructional designers, professors are able to edit audio and video, tape interviews with experts and insert them into the lectures, archive audio for students to review later, and create simulations to play out different scenarios. The courses also include live chats. Some faculty hold office hours through a chatroom.
Napier, a 23-year police veteran hoping to advance to the next rank, says that “unlike a traditional classroom where you can passively mark time and maybe go unnoticed, in the online classroom everyone has to contribute. Everyone has the opportunity to benefit from everyone else’s input.”
Through e-mails and collaborative assignments, he says, he was able to form friendships with students and instructors he never met in person. “You are also exposed to different points of view, and you develop a respect for those perspectives that may not have been so openly discussed in a traditional classroom,” he says. “Certainly, in a traditional classroom the synchronous discussions are bounded by class time. In the asynchronous online classroom, there are no artificial boundaries to the discussion. I found myself looking forward each evening to reading the posts of my fellow students.”
Napier says the program also helped him when dealing with juvenile justice issues. “I definitely have a new perspective as a result of my engaging the material and being forced to confront it from a viewpoint other than law enforcement,” he says.
Teachers say the online classroom is informing their work in the campus classroom, as well. “Doing an online course at first feels like writing a book and then feels like putting on a Broadway show,” says Cadigan. “There are so many elements that have to be incorporated. It requires you to be very critical of the material you include or exclude and how you present it an interesting or informative way.”
Part of the future
Halfond sees distance education as an increasingly important aspect of his college’s offerings: he expects online students to make up as much as half of MET’s enrollment in the next few years. “It’s always challenging to maintain the image and reputation of the University providing an online course, because there are so many poor-quality online programs out there,” he says. “We want to continue our distance education program and do so in a way that maintains our educational philosophy and quality.”