A Decade of Distance Learning

This past May, a record 674 online students received their degrees from Boston University. Many journeyed to Boston for Commencement, seeking each other out, shaking hands, embracing. Despite disparate backgrounds and communities, they were united as BU graduates.

Professor Daniel LeClaire
Professor Dan LeClair was charged with developing Boston University’s first online course, part of MET’s online Master of Criminal Justice.

It has been ten years since BU introduced its first fully online degree program, MET’s Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ). It started with one full-time faculty member—Professor Daniel LeClair, chair of Applied Social Sciences—and one criminal justice course, White-Collar Crime, which would form the blueprint for online learning at BU. “The discipline I had to impose on my lectures to bring them online was intense,” remembers LeClair. “But, it created a better product, and it made me a better teacher.”

Dean Halfond recalls the very moment when MET decided to take the MCJ program online. “If I had been looking out at a night sky, I would have seen the stars align,” says Halfond. “Had I known then where this would take us, it might have seemed too mammoth to even consider.”

To launch the program, the University allied with Embanet, an education technology startup. “MET had a phenomenal group of leaders with the entrepreneurial spirit, vision, and passion to develop a rigorous online curriculum,” says Nirmeen Hassan, who worked with Professor LeClair on the Criminal Justice program in 2002, and who is now Embanet’s senior vice president of academic partnerships. “Embanet had the resources to be able to develop and support the launch of a high-quality program from such a prestigious university.”

As the MCJ expanded beyond the local market, enrollments grew. “We were soon reaching police officers, federal government employees, and corrections officers as far away as Alaska, and in rural areas of Mississippi or Texas, where there is not much access to universities,” observes LeClair. The program was also popular with soldiers who could log in from bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, or other locations abroad.

The year 2004 proved to be a critical juncture. As the College graduated its inaugural online class of 130 MCJ students and launched its third online master’s, only three out of 33 courses had been developed in-house by MET’s Distance Education office—and it had become clear that outsourcing would not remain a sustainable model. “We had to develop our instructional design capability and refine our process,” says Director of Distance Education Nancy Coleman (GSM’07). “Although the curriculum is up to the faculty, we now have a specific way we design online content that is consistent from program to program.”

As instructional design was brought in-house, so were student services. “From the very beginning, we decided that we needed to give the student a BU experience,” says Coleman. “We want students to feel like they are coming to an online campus.” To date, Distance Education has supported 18 departments in 11 University schools and colleges, for a total of 14 degree programs, 5 graduate certificates, and 7 professional certificates. Roughly two hundred online courses have now been developed in-house by MET’s corps of highly qualified instructional designers.

“We took this one careful step at a time, as we brought new programs online and new services in-house,” Halfond explains. “Our faculty and staff continually rose to the challenge and helped make BU unique in the now crowded world of distance learning.”

 “I was a senior investigator for the New York County DA’s office, with a Bachelor of Police Science degree. I attribute my time at MET as being responsible for my acceptance into the doctoral program at the Graduate Center, CUNY. This program gave me the skills I needed to excel.”

—Dr. Robert E. Tarwacki (MET’04), adjunct professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and St. Peter’s University of Jersey City

Bolstered by MET’s team of student services coordinators, online services administrators, exam coordinators, and media producers, the capabilities of online instruction became increasingly apparent. Faculty embraced the format’s potential for innovation—online, they could enrich lectures with multimedia content and illustrate case studies with videos or film clips. Facilitated discussions and virtual student lounges could be enlivened with global perspectives. Courses could even be offered in collaboration with other international institutions. “You need course lectures, reading materials, the things you think of in a regular course on campus. Then, you need to translate that experience online. We encourage faculty to use their personalities to bring their content to life,” says Coleman.

A decade of continuous innovation and rigorous quality control has earned BU a position on the vanguard of distance learning, and has led to the Sloan Consortium Award for Excellence in Institution-Wide Online Education in 2010, and the U.S. Distance Learning Association Award for 21st Century Best Practices in 2011, among other honors.

Looking toward the next ten years, Coleman observes that the culture within the Distance Education office is one of continuous improvement. “We’re happy for a minute, but then we’re looking to how we can make the online learning environment bigger and better. That’s what helps us stay ahead of the curve. But our philosophy, in the end, is that it’s not about the technology—it’s about the learning experience.”

A learning experience that, far from being remote, solitary, and coldly technological, emphasizes community—from the team of many who bring an online program to life, to the faculty who contribute their experience and commitment to quality, to the students who balance their daily lives and careers with the rigors of an online curriculum. “We invested the effort, creativity, and resources to treat online education not simply as comparable to an on-campus education for working professionals, but exceptional in its own right,” says Dean Halfond. “And five thousand alumni later, we are pleased that we were able to provide this educational opportunity to students across the nation and globe. This is a time to celebrate, to look back, but then continue our aspirations and hard work so our next decade is even better.” 

Meet the Team behind the Online Master of Criminal Justice

Creating an online course requires a great deal of collaboration between faculty, course facilitators, and MET’s Distance Education office—a balancing act of teamwork that, in the end, must appear seamless to the students who log in to the online classroom from locations around the globe.

Metropolitan caught up with a few of the key players in MET’s online Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ)—the first online program to be launched at BU. Click on each category below to read more.

“Having a graduate degree in criminal justice from BU gave me an edge in my promotion to the rank of captain, and also enabled me to join the faculty in the criminal justice department at the State University of New York College at Buffalo as an adjunct professor. If you want a graduate criminal justice degree that is respected within the law enforcement profession and elsewhere, go to BU.”

—Captain Stephen McGonagle (MET’04) of the Amherst Police Department

The professionals in MET’s Distance Education office are uniquely qualified to take the concepts presented in a course and “bring them to life” in the online environment, while providing support services to students online and behind the scenes. Each member of the team is committed to presenting a high-quality, innovative, and—ultimately—personalized online learning experience.

Left to right: Jan Morris, Xuan Cai, and Patricia McDonnell

Patricia McDonnell is senior student services coordinator for the online Master of Criminal Justice. To ensure that distance learners don’t actually feel distant, she works hand-in-hand with three hundred online MCJ students. “I’m logged in to every course,” she says. “We’re service-oriented with our students. We want to make them feel like part of the University. It doesn’t matter if you’re on campus or if you’re serving in Iraq—you are a BU student. And that comes out when everyone meets on campus during graduation. It’s like they are long-lost relatives. It’s very rewarding.”

Xuan Cai is the instructional designer who works directly with MCJ faculty to adapt their course to the online environment. Embracing the challenge of creating an engaging experience for students learning at a distance, Cai takes each faculty member’s curricula and organizes the content into manageable sections, assessing where concepts might be expanded upon with multimedia. “If I see it’s really text-heavy, I might convert the content to a Flash object or a movie,” says Cai. “We’ll shoot video, we’ll take pictures, we’ll do voiceover—presentations to help people understand the subject better.”

Jan Morris, online services administrator, is integral to the seamless production of each online MCJ course, ensuring that copyrights are cleared and providing review for quality assurance. Morris also works closely with Barnes & Noble @ Boston University to help students with any textbook issues they may encounter—especially if they are overseas. “I love working with our students in the military. Anything we can do to help them come home with new skills and a career ahead of them is so gratifying to me.”

Left to right: Charles Southworth and Rob Haley

The Distance Education office’s media team consists of Senior Media Producer Robert Haley and Media Producer Charles Southworth. Together, along with part-time students working throughout the year, they plan, produce, and deliver all of the audio and visual elements associated with the MCJ online courses. The media team, over the past decade, has been able to deliver elements such as introductory videos, interactive animations, criminal scenarios, and expert interviews that look to continually enhance course content, while investigating new angles within the course.

Online Coordinator Sharon Lipp

Sharon Lipp, the online coordinator in MET’s Department of Applied Social Sciences, guides criminal justice online students through academic issues from registration to graduation, and helps identify the course facilitators who will interface with hundreds of students around the world. She works closely with MET’s Distance Education office to ensure that faculty and students are monitored and supported throughout the program. “From faculty, to coordinators, to Distance Education, everyone has a role in delivering a successful product,” explains Lipp.

“What is unique about our program is that we’ve got people who have actually worked in the profession, and our students like hearing how we handled problems, or mistakes we learned from. That’s our strength.”

—Daniel LeClair, professor and department chair

Full-time faculty, left to right: Shea Cronin, Daniel LeClair, Mary Ellen Mastrorilli, and Robert Cadigan

MET’s ten-course Master of Criminal Justice curriculum, both online and on campus, is taught by full-time faculty with considerable research and field experience. Professor Daniel LeClair, who chairs the Applied Social Sciences department, was with the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) for 18 years, ultimately as director of research. Assistant Professor and Associate Chair Mary Ellen Mastrorilli served in corrections for 24 years, retiring in 2004 as the Superintendent of Community Corrections for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department. Assistant Professor Shea Cronin has been published in the Journal of Crime and Justice, Crime and Delinquency, Justice Quarterly, and other academic journals, while Associate Professor Robert Cadigan, the former director of MET’s Prison Education Program, is a published expert in technological and social issues related to emergency medical care.

Not pictured are the MCJ program’s part-time faculty. Dr. Francis J. Carney, Jr., lecturer, has 35 years of justice system experience, currently as executive director of the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission. Dr. Kyung-shick Choi (MET’02), also a lecturer, is a cyber-crime expert and assistant professor of criminal justice at Bridgewater State University. Choi was Professor LeClair’s graduate assistant in 2000, helping to design and frame the initial criminal justice online course structure.

“We are constantly updating our courses so the material is current. We push students to improve their writing skills and critical thinking abilities. We educate them on the many complexities of crime and justice in our society. The MCJ degree helps students realize the import of their field and to carry out their duties mindfully and professionally.”

—Mary Ellen Mastrorilli, assistant professor and faculty coordinator for the online Master of Criminal Justice

Built into every online course is an “Ask Your Facilitator” button. Course facilitators are instrumental to the online learning experience; serving as the link between faculty and students, they are available to provide online support with course-related questions, along with valuable insight and advice to students in the Master of Criminal Justice program. According to Professor Daniel LeClair, “A number of our facilitators have PhDs. They have been prominent criminologists; some are professors, and many are former students of the MCJ program.”

Below, some of our course facilitators share their insights about the MCJ and their experiences online.

As a facilitator, I interact with students who are criminal justice practitioners at various levels of their careers, from around the world. I am there to respond to concerns in a timely manner, grade assignments, provide feedback, and help resolve non-academic issues that may affect a student’s ability to meet deadlines. An advantage to online learning is that the student does not have to wait until the next class to ask a question, but can do so any time—I am only a ‘click’ away.”

Curtis Belford (MET’05), deputy director of the Office of Law Enforcement Policy in the Ministry of National Security, Trinidad and Tobago. Online MCJ course facilitator since 2005.

As the communication link between instructors, facilitators, the BU administration, and other students, my job is to ensure that all students receive quality education. Being a former student of the program, I understand the concerns, the issues they confront, and the joy they feel when they reach their own goals. The program’s standards are high. The coursework is without a doubt the finest in the country, and provides an opportunity to engage with students all over the world. This program serves to keep you informed about current events and trends on a daily basis. The instructors and facilitators are real people who believe in providing a productive and challenging learning experience.”

Danny Dixon (MET’04), chair of the criminal justice department at Western Piedmont Community College, North Carolina. Online MCJ course facilitator since 2004.

I started as one of the original students in the online MCJ program. Shortly after graduating, I was promoted from lieutenant to captain at the Tucson Police Department. I believe this was a direct result of my earning a master’s degree at BU. I was a facilitator for several years and enjoyed it a great deal. I now serve in the role of lead facilitator. It has been incredibly rewarding to see the dedication of the professors and to watch students successfully navigating the challenging curriculum. It is so gratifying to feel the real sense of pride that students exhibit as they near graduation.”

Ret. Captain Mark D. Napier (MET’04), Tucson Police Department. Online MCJ course facilitator since 2004.

I was involved with Boston University’s first online course as Dr. LeClair’s graduate assistant, in 2000. Since 2002, I have facilitated and assisted in developing Research Methods, Statistics, White-Collar Crime, and Crime and Punishment courses. I recently launched my own course, Cybercrime, in fall 2011. The experience of facilitating and developing online programs while pursuing my PhD in criminology has helped me understand the importance of technology in criminal justice. I gained invaluable insights that I could apply to my cybercrime study.”

Dr. Kyung-shick Choi (MET’02), assistant professor of criminal justice at Bridgewater State University. Online MCJ course facilitator since 2002.

I enjoy working with these (mostly) non-traditional students, answering their questions and keeping them on-track and focused. MET’s online Master of Criminal Justice is as rigorous as any on-ground graduate program.”

Dr. Ken Mullen, associate professor at Appalachian State University, North Carolina. Online MCJ course facilitator since 2004.