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The Evolutionary Online MBA

SUNY Oswego has taken the gradual approach to building its recently launched MBA program. But behind its seemingly modest efforts, the university's ambitions lie in wait to see just how scalable the model is.

Deciding to go whole hog with an online master of business administration degree wasn't a giant step for SUNY Oswego, which launched the new MBA program in January. According to School of Business Dean Richard Skolnik, the university had been moving in that direction for years. More than half of the courses being delivered in its more traditional MBA programs were already being offered online. Once the online MBA degree was in formation, the university could focus on filling the gaps. Now the school is considering following that model to help sustain other graduate programs.

The 8,300-student Oswego, one of 13 university colleges in the 64-campus State University of New York system, has been delivering online courses for over a decade. Currently, that includes completely online undergraduate degrees in public justice and broadcasting, as well as vocational teacher preparation.

On the MBA front, the institution offers a traditional program where students meet on campus and another that's delivered during evenings at a Syracuse campus. The university also offers two five-year tracks, one for people who will pursue the certified public accountant credential and another for those pursuing a degree in psychology as well as the MBA. All of those programs offer some courses totally online or as a hybrid.

"It's not like we woke up one day and said, 'Let's do this,'" said Tammie Sullivan, director of MBA programs for the School of Business. "This has been a huge progression. I came on board a year and a half ago. We talked seriously about getting it approved and fully online then. We already had the classes built. They were being offered. Students were taking them. We just weren't formally offering [the full degree] as an online option."

So the latest iteration of MBA offering, she explained, simply has a "higher percent online." The addition will offer greater flexibility to all of Oswego's MBA students, she added, who tend to be made up of students who are holding down full-time jobs, have families, and have other commitments. Depending on a student's needs in any given semester, he or she may decide to take a mix of classes online and in the classroom. The approach, she said "is very student-centered."

In as many ways as possible, Sullivan said, Oswego wants the virtual version of its program to be exactly the same as the in-person edition. "The same classes, the same structure, the same student advisement," Sullivan said. "The only difference is the delivery of the courses."

Professional Networking
Oswego's use of technology for delivering the new program is far from cutting edge. The university is using the same course management system--Angel Learning Management System--that has been in place since 2007, and the same edition of that--version 7.4--that was released in April 2009. In May 2009 the LMS company was purchased by Blackboard. The institution has outsourced management of the LMS to the SUNY Learning Network. This is a partnership of SUNY schools that provides support for online programs in the areas of technology, user services, marketing, and pedagogy.

Without the services of the Network, said Greg Ketcham, Oswego's assistant director of distance learning and an instructional designer, getting a new online MBA program up and keeping it running would be near-impossible. "Through a subscription we've centralized IT services that give us the 'four nines' that we need for online learning," he explained. "These 'cloud' services really are a benefit that we derive from participating in the SUNY consortium." Those services include a help desk available to students seven days a week with extended hours; access to the Angel LMS; data center management by an IT organization at SUNY Buffalo; and business continuity through a mirrored site at SUNY Albany.

"We have class-one hosting facilities, which isn't something the typical college [of our size] on its own would decide to invest in," added Ketcham. "Through the consortium we can leverage resources to come up with that kind of facility and those kinds of resources."

The network also provides Ketcham and his team of instructional designers a forum for sharing knowledge and best practices with peers at other SUNY institutions, "which is a fantastic resource available to all of SUNY," he said.

There's also the marketing aspect of belonging to the network, but Oswego doesn't have control over those. Currently, the SUNY network includes references to three other online MBA programs in the system, two with specialties in IT and health services delivered by the Institute of Technology at Utica/Rome and one that's purely business-focused from Empire State College. The Oswego program will eventually be added to that roster, which makes it visible and available to anybody interested in attending a SUNY school for a degree. But even though the program has begun, it hasn't shown up on the Master Degree Programs roster yet.

Developing Faculty Online Skills
Preparing faculty to teach traditional classes online isn't something that can be handed off so easily, and that's a work-in-progress at Oswego. To start with, there are faculty who don't even use the LMS. Ketcham estimated that currently about 40 percent of "core" courses at his university tap into the functionality of Angel, and the number is growing at 20 percent year over year in face-to-face classes. That increase is important because familiarity with Angel is essential to being able to deliver online courses.

Ketcham said that while the Angel adoption among faculty has been helped along by making training sessions for the instructors available, two other factors are just as important: peer support and student demand. "We have experienced users who are happy to share their knowledge with their peers," he explained. "And when students walk into a class not using Angel, they're likely to speak up."

Besides Angel's use for its baseline functions--the sharing of course information, grades, and assignments; and allowing faculty to e-mail students individually and en masse--it has also become the de facto collaboration platform for campus committees to maintain documentation, for collection of resumes, and for student group activities and as a repository for accreditation-related materials.

Some of the more advanced instructors are also using Angel to monitor student engagement. "I can go on in a course and run a report that shows me when a student has logged in, for how long," explained Sullivan. "If a student says, 'I'm in class, I'm really struggling,' you could go in and see that they've only logged in once and they stayed online for 10 minutes. So we'd know there were other issues."

The Differences between Online and In-Person Classes
Even a decade into offering online classes, Oswego is putting a lot of attention on sorting out the unique aspects of those versus brick-and-mortar classes that somehow need to be moved online.

For example, one aspect is assessment of learning outcomes. As an example, noted Skolnik. "On written communication skills, there would probably be no change in assessing learning outcomes. But in oral communications or presentations, that has to change from presenting in person to a group to presenting in a Web environment."

In that particular case, Oswego MBA students are expected to record a presentation to share with others or do real-time Web-based presentations, such as a Webinar.

Another distinction between in-person and online courses: It's harder for an instructor to gauge audience interest and adjust the presentation on the fly. "If students are in front of you, you can read their body language," said Sullivan. "When you're online, you can only read their faces. You lose a little of that comfort."

To help faculty tweak their teaching styles, the instructional designers are working with individual instructors to help them learn how to manage their pace and add breaks in the instruction to check audience engagement.

For now presentations are primarily asynchronous, handled through threaded discussions. The instructors can set up real-time interaction with their students, handled through text-based chat. But the university is also exploring the use of products such as Blackboard's Elluminate and Skype's free video calling service to add face-time and voice-over-IP audio.

Ketcham said he is especially enthusiastic about Elluminate. "It's a really versatile platform. You can present materials in a shared whiteboard area, so you could share slides or a document; you can do real-time voice chat; you can have an IM thread running in parallel with the presentation."

The use of online video could also go a long way in helping online-only students gain a sense of a cohort. It's much tougher to feel a part of a group of people all weathering the same academic travails on their way to earning a degree if participants can't see the baggy eyes or tired expressions the morning after a major project needs to be finished. Video can communicate those aspects of the environment in a way that a threaded discussion just won't.

But Ketcham said he also recognizes that the multi-modal aspects of the platform will present an obstacle for instructors who are still learning the basics. "Being able to manage multiple inputs of interaction with the students will be an emerging challenge overall," he said.

For that reason and others, taking on the teaching of online courses is purely voluntary for teachers at Oswego. "There are challenges of workload, challenges of wanting to connect with every single student in the online course, and realizing what that amount of data really amounts to if you try that," Ketcham observed. "Generally speaking, many faculty pass through that walking-on-fire moment. There's a level of uncertainty and doubt. But when they come through the other side in the middle or end of the semester, they have lessons learned that come into the next iteration of teaching that course again. That's really what it's all about."

"A lot of people think teaching online is easy. You don't have that interaction. You're not accessible as a faculty member," added Sullivan. "Actually I think it's just the opposite. In a traditional class, the professor is on for three hours and then done. When you're online, that professor is engaging with you 24x7."

That greater engagement is also applicable to the students. "When I was in a classroom and I had a faculty member lecturing, I wouldn't crack the book," Sullivan confessed. "I would absorb it through the lecture. Online you have to be an active learner. You're expected to do research and bring that into the discussions. You need to go out and find out what's going on in the real world and bring that in. In those ways it really engages the student on a higher level."

Ketcham concurred. "There's no place to hide in an online course. You can sit in a classroom course and not be fully present in terms of your engagement in a classroom discussion. When it moves online and there's a stated requirement--'All students must participate'--there's a leveling effect in terms of hearing the thoughts of every student and having every student actively engaged in that particular activity."

Expanding the Model
Momentum has built at Oswego for ramping up its online course offerings and developing additional online graduate degree offerings. "We recognize the opportunity and demand from adult learners," said Ketcham.

"Especially if there's a geographic dispersion of students," added Skolnik. "Then online makes a lot of sense."

In other words, going online with the traditional MBA is just the first step in offering additional online graduate degree programs in other subject areas. Skolnik said he's particularly interested to see if the online model can help build programs that need to go beyond Oswego's traditional recruitment reach, which tends to be regional.

Preliminary work for the new MBA program has examined how much time it would take for an instructional designer to support development of a new course and assisting faculty members new to online instruction. Ketcham declined to specify any particular amount of time because, as he pointed out, it's "highly situational," and depends on how complex the multimedia in the course is and how much support any given instructor needs from that instructional designer. But ultimately, he added, Oswego is quickly becoming familiar with what factors to consider and how wide to draw that sliding scale.

"The goal to build a scalable system that can react to demand," Ketcham concluded. "As we go through phases of creating new online programs as well as courses, we can create a roadmap in terms of planning and then source appropriately."

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