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BU’s Long Distance Learners

Online program wins plaudits


Under Dean Jay Halfond, Metropolitan College has become a center of online instruction. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Craving a BU education after learning about its academic reputation and strong interdisciplinary curriculum, Hillary Blazer-Doyle faced a hurdle: she was living in Singapore, where her husband’s insurance company job had posted him. But Blazer-Doyle, a voiceover actress, was determined not to let the 9,400 miles that separated her from campus stand in the way. She began studying online through BU’s Distance Education program, one of 2,500 “distance learners” enrolled at BU.

On the program’s accelerated schedule, Blazer-Doyle (MET’10) studied from her laptop (and occasionally in her pajamas) for two and a half years while nation-hopping for her husband’s or her own business—Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia, and on visits home to the United States. But when it came time for graduation last May, she was determined to do one thing in person, not online: sit with her class on Nickerson Field and pick up her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies. Blazer-Doyle says the experience was so positive that she wants to get involved with BU’s alumni association in London, where she now lives. And she plans graduate studies somewhere: “I fell in love with education through this program,” she says.

Similar satisfaction is expressed by 92 percent of BU’s distance learners, according to Jay Halfond, dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education. That satisfaction has won BU a nod from a nonprofit that promotes online education: the Sloan Consortium has given the University its Award for Excellence in Institution-wide Online Education, which will be presented November 4 in Orlando, Fla.

For BU, the award spotlights the University’s role in what the Chicago Tribune has dubbed “a white-hot education trend.” No longer Jetson-age exotica, online education is mushrooming, from public grade schools to private universities.

In August the Boston Globe cited a report putting the number of higher education students taking at least one online course at 4.6 million in fall 2008, 17 percent more than the previous year.

The Globe reported that the for-profit University of Phoenix, which specializes in online education, has the largest enrollment of any North American university. Yet traditional colleges have embraced the field so rapidly that they offer the majority of courses-by-computer, according to the newspaper. BU, which created its first online program in 2001, now offers 35-plus programs (a list can be found here) tutoring students in 43 nations and all 50 states. Most of the University’s distance learners are enrolled in MET or the College of Fine Arts.

Launching instruction into cyberspace “allows us to expand the educational reach of Boston University,” says Nancy Coleman, BU’s director of distance education. Online students tend to be working professionals in their 30s doing graduate study part-time, Halfond says. (Declining to give her precise age, Blazer-Doyle says it’s a little north of 34.) They average 20 hours per week on course work and 10 weekly posted comments to course discussions. “They would never get this airtime or find this time to work independently in a conventional course,” says Halfond.

Online students pay the same tuition as on-campus students, as well as a $50-per-credit technology fee, Coleman says. She also says she’s discussing new online degrees with several of BU’s colleges. That’s not to say that teaching via computer monitor doesn’t pose challenges.

“Online courses need to be fully designed before they even begin,” says Halfond. “Faculty put in hundreds of hours before the semester starts, working closely with an instructional designer to author a course that is pristine, impressive, and fully developed.”

For students who might miss traditional faculty face-time, the University provides a brief, preenrollment questionnaire, online, of course, to help them assess whether distance learning is right for them.

For her part, Blazer-Doyle says she “loved the unorthodox nature of online learning. It could all be done in my pajamas! There was no rushing to a class or perhaps finding a parking spot.” That doesn’t mean her courses were a breeze. “This program is not easy. People have the idea that an online degree is not a real degree. Perhaps when it is given from other schools, but here we do the same amount of work for each class that every student on campus does, just at an accelerated rate.”

The Sloan Consortium has handed out awards since 2001, and although the competition was stiff this year, “the selection committee felt that Boston University’s online program was exemplary,” committee chairman Burks Oakley wrote in his award notification to BU President Robert A. Brown and Provost David Campbell.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.


8 Comments on BU’s Long Distance Learners

  • Anonymous on 10.08.2010 at 8:30 am

    online education

    I agree. The online program brings together people from all over the world who otherwise might never have met each other. It has provided me with the opportunity to study in a program that is meeting my academic and career needs.

  • Anonymous on 10.08.2010 at 10:38 am

    The article claims: “BU, which created its first online program in 2001, …”. This may be correct, but it is correct in a relatively narrow sense of the word. In the COE, we had “Corporate classroom” in the 1980’s and early 1990’s with about 30 major industrial subscribers. I along with many other COE faculty taught on TV for years, and it was fun- especially when the phone would ring and on the other end of the line was a pizza delivery man (not a student with a question). The grad students we had were mature, motivated and interesting to talk to.

    Where am I going with this tale? Well, a distinction should be made between “distance learning” and “web-based instruction”. We should have a greater sense of our history both in the COE and BU in general. This is important in the present case since our President and Provost have their primary appointments in the COE and the institution should be able to relate some interesting anecdotes as the administration is notified of the most recent awards.

  • Kurt H on 10.08.2010 at 1:59 pm

    BU MET Online Program Pros and Cons

    I’m currently enrolled as a BU MET student in the Computer Science department and am pursuing an MS degree in Computer Information Systems.

    I’ve previously attended a traditional full-time 4-year school and completed an MBA degree in a classroom-based evening part-time study program and think that the online format is interesting insofar as what ways it is superior to a traditional classroom program.

    The online format of the BU courses is definitely superior in terms of being convenient and easy to work into my schedule — in my experience as an evening MBA student, one thing I hated was working all day then rushing to class and then getting home at 10 PM only to then have to shovel the sidewalk and set up the recycling for the next day. I also especially like the 7-week semester format of the distance education programs. The academic calendar of the evening MBA program was based off the undergrad shedule, so we had no classes for the weeks of fall break, spring break and easter break. Although it is nice to have a break in the weekly schedule, I still have to go to my regualar full-time job, so I’d have just assumed the semesters finish a few weeks earlier.

    I the online discussion forum of the online classes is good and bad. Bad by not being so good for encouraging real-time interaction and thus all discussions typically involve extra delays. However, very good in that other students need to do a better job of gathering their thoughts, doing research and crafting a cohesive message. I’ve found that in classroom contexts, some students can tend to dominate the conversation and thus prevent other students from participating. The online format allows students to drift in and out of various discussion threads and thus gain a better overall perspective than if they were to participate in a classroom-based discussion group.

    I think the biggest minus of an online program is the lack of a rich interactive experience. Although efforts are made to provide forums where students can interact in topics that are not related to the course, I doubt that many people form many long-term relationships with other students in the online program. I am still very much in-touch with some of my undergrad classmates, but not in-touch with students from my MBA program or online program at all. However, that is probably the price to pay for the convenience of the online format.

    Kurt H.
    BU MSCIS Student
    Minneapolis, MN

  • Lauren on 10.08.2010 at 3:29 pm

    Two Thumbs Up!!

    I am a online BU graduate student and I am happy to see BU winning the Award for Excellence in Institution-wide Online Education.

    I am part of that 92% that has been, though tired to say the least, very satisfied with my educational experience at BU.

    The program is not at all easy, and I would say has an added difficulty which is the self discipline necessary. There is no schedule time or place to be doing the work, which means you need to make it.

    Two Thumbs Up!!

    Lauren Goldfinger

    Graduate student working words my MSM in Business Continuity, Security and Risk Management.

  • Dr. Dania Shapira on 10.08.2010 at 7:10 pm

    Well done!

    Although it’s only partially related, you should add the great job the Met College has been doing with the Evergreen program. I have been a non-stop attendee of wide-range courses available for us to audit.

    One correction: The Distance Learning system was established at School of Education by Dr. Gaylen Kelley, then the Director of the Ed Media and Technology program, connecting students from Alaska (first) to the program via audio/video conferencing system, which has developed into a well-designed Distance Learning program, available today throughout the university.

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2010 at 9:48 pm

    online education

    I am in the last semester of my online master’s classes, and I have to say it has been an amazing experience. After “talking” with classmates for a year, we got together for our summer studios in June. I now have great friends that I Skype with (they – Canada and Kuwait) me, Florida. Every University needs to offer online classes. I only wish BU had an online MFA program.

  • Kathy C on 10.12.2010 at 11:06 pm

    kudos to Coleman's team

    The instructional designers, production staff, and student services team working under Nancy Coleman’s direction are terrific. It is a well-designed approach and the award is very well-deserved! As a former staff member, I have seen first-hand the quality result that comes from the way she manages the process. Two key features stand out: designers creating courses collaboratively with faculty and caring administrators helping students succeed in the courses. The quality is even more evident to me since I began working as a freelance instructional designer in recent years. I’ve seen that the BU model is far better than the average distance education model; it is better managed and better funded than most. With the talented folks there, I have no doubt that it will continue to be award-winning!

  • BU Healthcare Emergency Management Program on 07.12.2011 at 12:12 pm

    Online Healthcare Emergency Management Program

    This article does not mention that Boston University School of Medicine has a program in Healthcare Emergency Management that offers a “virtual classroom” which enables students to attend the program and receive a Master’s of Science from anywhere in the world.

    Unlike typical online programs, all lectures in the Healthcare Emergency Management Program are in real-time via VTC (video tele conference) software. This enables students and faculty to engage in discussions with their peers wherever they may be.

    For more information visit: http://www.bumc.bu.edu/bmcm/

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