Closing the Distance: New faculty advisory board to guide BU's online growth


When Boston University began dabbling in online education a few years ago, administrators at Metropolitan College and Extended Education asked Kip Becker to design an online course on international commerce.

"They told me it would take about 100 hours," says Becker, a MET associate professor and chair of the administrative sciences department. "But it was more like writing a book." He worked on the course nearly every day for the five months leading up to its debut in the virtual classroom.

"Then they said, 'Your class starts next week,' and I really wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do,”"says Becker. "Now that I had packaged this material into multimedia presentations, it wasn’t clear to me what my role was."

Such uncertainty was common in the early days of online education at many universities, according to Becker. "It was kind of a trial by fire," he says. "We learned how to do this as we went along."

In the years since, online education at BU has exploded. The number of online students has jumped to about 3,000, and while MET continues to lead in the development of online courses, many other BU colleges have been migrating online, from the School of Social Work to Sargent College to the School of Education. This summer, the growth prompted MET Dean Jay Halfond and University Provost David Campbell to establish the Faculty Advisory Board for Distance Education, with representatives from each of BU’s schools and colleges. The group began holding monthly meetings in September and hopes to have a Web site featuring meeting minutes and supporting documents later in the fall.

"A lot of this is about the credibility of distance education at Boston University," says Halfond. "It can’t just be an administrative operation run out of MET. It needs to be front and center as one of the University’s major academic responsibilities."

The advisory board, chaired by Karen Jacobs, a Sargent College clinical professor and director of the college's online occupational therapy degree programs, has four subcommittees — faculty roles, criteria for establishing an online program, mechanisms for measuring the validity of distance education, and technology — each of which will convene independently of the full advisory board’s monthly meetings.

"We want to be a very visible advisory board, so that people can see the role that distance education is playing at BU," says Jacobs. "We’re excited to have people learn more about it and help it grow in the right way."

"We must be confident that online programs meet our standards of excellence," Campbell wrote in a June letter inviting faculty to join the committee, which for now is not expected to produce a comprehensive report on distance education at BU. "Initially," he says, "their key role is as a sounding board for new ideas and also as a quality control and program review mechanism."

Indeed, member faculty already have several suggestions for the future of online education at BU.

"I think one of the big challenges is integrating online students with our on-campus students," says Thomas Fauls, a College of Communication associate professor of advertising and a member of the subcommittee on criteria for establishing an online program. "The BU experience is such a terrific experience for people who are here, and it would be great if we could give more of a feeling of that to the online students." Fauls teaches an on-campus course on Internet marketing, which maintains all of its readings and reports online.

"There is no text," says Fauls. "The Internet moves too fast for text to remain valid and relevant for more than a couple of weeks."

Becker, on the faculty roles subcommittee, also sees the convergence of distance and on-campus learning as a reason to give online education serious academic attention. He notes that online course development and teaching, while still labor-intensive, have progressed a lot since his first attempts.

"Technologies have changed, and the assistance has gotten better," he says. He adds that distance education courses can help professors learn how to teach with new technologies that will increasingly be classroom mainstays.

"The big question is what will our classrooms look like in 10 years," Becker says. "We’ve got a whole generation of students coming up blogging, building Web sites, listening to iPods, and those students will expect education to be using those types of communication and presentation formats."

By Chris Berdik.


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