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The Mouse that Roars Quality

Now with graduate education sites across the nation, Lesley University sees quality control as its key to success.

Once a small, private women’s college, Cambridge, MA-based Lesley University has extended its reach across the country, now claiming more than 150 teacher education sites that serve upwards of 12,000 graduate students each year. Longtime Lesley President Margaret McKenna acknowledges the challenge, such expansion can pose, and sees a vigilant focus on quality control as key to the institution’s success.

Margaret McKenna:
"We will not forego
quality for size.

Today, Lesley University is known for its innovative and successful online graduate programs. Are you counted among the first to offer online graduate programs? We were one of the first to put our master’s degree in education online. Actually, we may be the first master’s degree in education in the country. However, the thing that Lesley is probably best known for in terms of program delivery is off-campus programs, which are face-to-face accelerated weekends. So, online is important to us and will become more significant, but I do want to put it in perspective.

How did Lesley get started in distance education? For over 30 years, Lesley has been offering off-campus learning in an accelerated format. Long before any of the folks who are working in this field now, Lesley was doing what we called “distance learning”—but in the beginning, that simply meant putting people on airplanes. That all came about because so many teachers around the country could not access graduate education. We’ve been doing cohort models and weekends for a long time.

How are those offerings different now? What’s changed about them is that the technology now supports them. In between the weekend meetings, there’s a lot of work that g'es on online as well. And some of the weekend models have moved into hybrids, or even totally online programs.

Then you have a mix of online and face-to-face? Yes. Lesley is one of the largest providers of graduate education for classroom teachers in the country. To deliver that, we offer a combination of face-to-face weekends, online learning, and some hybrids—as well as on-campus, full-semester courses. We work pretty much in all formats.

How long have you been at Lesley? Since ’85—20 years.

Did you bring with you a number of visions for online learning? The answer is “yes,” but the motive was more to serve populations of teachers who could not otherwise access education. Technology was a significant means to do that. So, my goal was that nationally, Lesley would become the quality leader in teacher education, and that we would provide access to our programs where teachers would otherwise have none, either because of geography or because there were no programs in a format that would be practical for them. So that was the vision, and it resulted in significantly scaling up our off-campus programs and adding programs that were totally online.

How would you characterize the growth of your off-campus and online programs over time, since the beginning of your time at Lesley? We went from just over 2,000 students to over 12,000, and the budget increased from
$15 million to $100 million.

And you’re the ninth leading provider of master’s degrees in the US? Yes, we’re a very large graduate school. We’re one of the largest, if not the largest in teacher education, and we are significant-sized, in terms of providing master’s degrees, in any field. Teacher education is the only thing we do nationally.

Earlier in your career you were Deputy Under Secretary in the US Department of Education, and a White House Deputy Counsel to President Jimmy Carter. How did your government service inform some of the decisions you made about implementing online education programs at Lesley? It helped me to understand the national picture in education—particularly teacher education—and the urgent need for high-quality, accessible, professional development opportunities for teachers. It helped me also to see that there were parts of the country where it was almost impossible to access teacher education—and that the dramatic changes in demography and our society were requiring different kinds of education, as well as different kinds of teaching and pedagogy. So, it made me more aware of that on a national level than I would have been otherwise.

I notice that you mention high quality as much as you mention growth. Was your main goal quality—over growth? Absolutely. We will only grow as fast as we can sustain quality. And there have been periods of time when we have not responded to demand because we could not provide the level of support in terms of mentoring, preparation, and evaluation that we were comfortable with. So, our goal is to be the quality leader, not the largest. We will not forego quality for size.

How do you ensure quality? And is there a key to assessment that you stress? I think there are several things: One is that course evaluations are done for every course by every student, every time. They serve as a very valuable piece, because these are teachers. Their evaluations are very important to us, because they will not settle for anything less than the best, both in terms of content and pedagogy. That’s very significant when you’re teaching teachers—you have to model good

The second thing is that unlike most institutions, our off-campus programs are totally integrated academically; we do not have a “division” for off-campus education. Our teacher education programs are run out of the School of Education, by the faculty of Education. The full-time faculty of Education here in Cambridge teach in these programs, they hire the faculty, and new faculty who are hired team-teach with full-time faculty who mentor and evaluate them. So it’s a structure that is quite different from others—much more expensive, I must say, but it ensures the quality.

Has the profile of your faculty—and how you work with faculty—changed with the addition of online course responsibilities? The interests of faculty have changed in several ways: Because our off-campus programs have grown to the scale they have, in some fields—technology in education, creative arts, curriculum and instruction—those divisions have significant responsibility in off-campus programs. We would be unlikely now to hire a faculty member who would not be interested in off-campus delivery. They would need to travel, and they would be responsible for hiring and mentoring faculty. So, our needs over the past years have changed, and the faculty is quite different than it was a decade ago.

"We would be unlikely to hire a faculty member who would not be interested in off-campus delivery."

How many faculty do you now have? We have well over 200 full-time, plus those that we call “half-time,” pro-rata faculty: people who teach less than full-time, but are on contracts with benefits. In addition, we have “national” faculty who are also on contracts and teach only in our national program. Finally, we have a small number of “per-course” faculty.

Do you see students acting more like consumers? The vast majority of our students are themselves teachers. They want to make sure the time they are putting in is worthwhile; that they become better teachers through programs in which they can learn different methodologies, teaching styles, and content that can help them. It’s a pretty significant demand. I’m not certain you would call it a consumer-driven demand, but it is certainly very demanding for faculty teaching in those programs.

Because your national program is highly distributed, geographically, how do you see your competitive position, particularly with the “for-profits?” As I’ve said, we distinguish ourselves by offering high-quality education. And we have full-time faculty teaching in our programs; for the most part, the for-profits have “per-course” people teaching in their programs. So we have a significant commitment to modeling good pedagogy. We have found that people who are dissatisfied with their programs move over to, and stay in, ours. I think it’s a credit to our teachers.

How much of an investment do you have in faculty development? We spend about $1 million in faculty development each year, between sabbaticals and release time, and other development opportunities. If our faculty give presentations at conferences, we pay for them to do that. We have writing workshops with faculty. We have an academic technology support team that trains faculty to incorporate technology into the classroom, and to work online. It’s a very significant investment in faculty development.

With a greater percentage of full-time faculty and online programs that are fully integrated with on-campus departments, have you generated more of a campus culture than you’d see in other programs, even for those who take fully online courses? Absolutely. If you talk to our students, no matter where in the country, they will give you a sense of the essence of Lesley, in a way you won’t find in other off-campus programs. Many for-profits created off-campus delivery systems, but they didn’t even have any on-campus programs. Even some non-profits have created online programs outside of their existing academic structures— NYU, Temple University [PA], The New School [NY], and Columbia Teachers College [NY], for example. Of course, it has to be harder for them to entice faculty to become involved in online programs.

Could you speak about your retention rate? Our retention rate is over 98 percent in our online programs and about 98 to 99 percent in our face-to-face and cohort programs. So we have virtually no dropout rate, and I think that has a great deal to do with our commitment to an engaged pedagogy. There is no place in the institution where you will hear just lecturing. Whether graduate or undergraduate, online or face-to-face, you’ll find engagement. And I think interaction with the faculty is an important reason why our online programs have such a great retention rate.

What changes do you see coming up over the next few years? In the field of education, the demand for high-quality education that students can apply will continue to grow. This country is in crisis in terms of math and science. And there’s a significant shortfall in terms of special education for urban, at-risk kids. In our off-campus programs, we’ll be paying even more attention to specifics like math and science—as we’re doing in some places now—and special education. Also, we’ll be dealing more with districts and states, customizing programs for them. And I see our online programs growing more than they have in the past; we’re focusing on them more than we have before. Now that we are confident about the level of quality—which was more complex to develop because of our commitment to engaged learning—I think we’re going to see significant growth in our online community.

As a leader and innovator for more than 20 years, can you share any “lessons learned” about working with technology programs? Don’t be starry-eyed about technology. Make sure you know why you are using it. The curriculum and the learning should drive the technology, not vice versa. I always ask, “How will this enhance learning for our students?”

Lesley University at a Glance

Lesley is a multisite university, offering programs at its Cambridge and Boston campuses and at more than 150 sites in 19 states. Its five schools include: the School of Integrated and Experiential Studies; the School of Education; the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences; the Art Institute of Boston; and Lesley College.

  • Founded: 1909
  • Current national enrollment: 12,225
  • Current on-campus enrollment (Fall 2004): 4,690
  • Total alumni: 52,456
  • Online degrees offered:
    · Master’s in Technology in Education, launched online 1997
    · Master’s in Science in Education, launched online 1999
  • Lesley technology:
    · CMS: Blackboard Academic Suite (myLesley)
    · Student information system: Datatel’s Colleague
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