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Online Education, With Investment, Can Provide Opportunities for Students and Faculty

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Student Studying with Laptop
Photo by Jeff Watts

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.

In recent months, news has emerged from universities around the country indicating that a significant level of skepticism remains about online education. Some university faculty doubt that online education offers meaningful student-teacher interaction, and argue that online courses are inferior to face-to-face learning. Still others broadly oppose collaborations with for-profit external providers.

When we first examined the possibility of working with an external provider to deliver graduate education three years ago at the School of International Service at American University, we shared the same instincts, alongside many of our faculty colleagues. After all, how could online education be as beneficial to students as being in the same room and on the same campus with one another and with their professors?

Remarkably, we have found that it can be as beneficial, and that it has certain unique advantages. But this level of success requires a tremendous investment of resources, creativity and ambition to ensure that we meet our commitment as faculty and administrators to those students whose professional or family responsibilities or location do not allow them to enroll on campus.

In May 2013, the School of International Service launched an online master's degree in International Relations (MAIR), among the first of its kind in the United States. A year and a half later, more than 100 students have participated in live, online class sessions from 13 countries, 26 states, and across 14 time zones. Approximately one-third of these students are active duty or retired U.S. military. The School is responsible for admissions decisions, provides the course content and curriculum, and, working with the university, determines all policies related to the online degree. Faculty members spend 7 to 9 months preparing an online course -- including building the material that students will watch on their own time, such as lectures, presentations, videos, and simulations.

The School partnered with 2U, Inc., which has provided an online platform that enables faculty to deliver both pre-prepared and live coursework. 2U has invested financial and human resources in marketing the online degree that we would never have been able to devote on our own. For our course on international organizations, for example, 2U provided resources that allowed for high-quality, filmed interviews of half a dozen policymakers and experts at United Nations headquarters in New York. Students in the course viewed those interviews as they prepared for the relevant week's course meetings.

For these weekly "live sessions," students and the professor all appear on screen in a virtual classroom. This "Brady Bunch"-style format can produce a level of interaction that matches or even exceeds on-campus class sessions. The professor can easily assess and encourage student engagement, and participation has been as robust as in a traditional classroom. A variety of online tools -- including instant polls, an ongoing chat function, and online "breakout rooms" -- enhance that face-to-face contact. Moreover, the diversity of student locations, something only an online experience can provide, can be a powerful additive to classroom chemistry. In a recent online class, students included an officer deployed in Afghanistan, a student in the midst of a professional trip to Dubai, and another working with an international organization in Europe. They brought to the classroom their immediate experiences and perspectives and made our discussion of international organizations extraordinarily rich.

Our students and our faculty report high levels of satisfaction -- with 94 percent of students in our most recent survey reporting that they would strongly recommend the online master's program to a friend. We invited our online students to campus for a four-day immersion program in early September -- an experience not unlike a family reunion. Students who had come to know each other well through their online courses met for the first time in person. Moreover, our students met with their professors and attended individual academic and career advising sessions, participated in a skills workshop on multinational negotiation scenarios, and visited the U.S. Agency for International Development for a School of International Service alumni panel that offered them advice on careers in development. Alongside our partner 2U, we have been able to provide our online students the same benefits they would receive in our on-campus graduate degree programs, creating as equitable an experience as possible for all of our students.

To be sure, the process of designing and delivering an online master's degree has presented challenges. For all its capabilities, the technological platform cannot completely replicate spontaneous on-campus interactions. Faculty understandably are concerned about the use of their intellectual property, and sometimes their vision of a course's educational materials do not align with the optimal uses of the online platform. Fortunately, our staff and faculty and 2U's leadership team and staff meet regularly to resolve issues as they arise. Despite the university's status as a non-profit and 2U's for-profit status, we share the same overriding goal for all of our students, regardless of the mode of delivery: to train future leaders in international affairs who will leave the program and embark on successful careers in government, international organizations, non-profits, and business, to address the great challenges of our time.

David Bosco is an assistant professor at the School of International Service. You can follow him on Twitter @Multilateralist.

James Goldgeier is dean of the School of International Service. You can follow him on Twitter @JimGoldgeier.

The original version of this article appeared in the Huffington Post on December 9, 2014: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dean-james-goldgeier/online-education-with-gre_b_6288764.html