Bricks Versus Video

October 15, 2010       Kate Rogers      

Online courses and distance learning have opened up the doors for nonprofit executives, those in career transition, and graduate students seeking the highest levels of education despite their location. As technology continues to advance, those participating in coursework via the Web can interact with professors and discuss material in real time, bringing personal connection to cutting edge education.

While academia online is expanding, some still prefer to attend courses on-site and get their degrees the old-fashioned way — face to face.

The vast majority of online students are women, currently employed in the nonprofit sector, seeking to bolster their resume with either a master’s degree or certificates in nonprofit management, according to program directors. While many might be taking distance learning because the college isn’t close by, others are peppering in online courses throughout their schedules of on-site classes, for convenience and experience.

Bay Path College in Longmeadow, Mass., combines high-tech online course components with personal teaching styles, offering its entire Nonprofit Management and Strategic Fundraising Masters programs, as well as a variety of certificate programs, on the Web. Many graduate courses are on an eight-week accelerated plan, according to A. Rima Dael, acting director of the nonprofit management program at Bay Path, with class discussion forums meeting online between four and five days per week. Professors use video or voice-over PowerPoint presentations to have students attain an interactive feel while learning off-site.

Dael said even on-site courses utilize online components, with lecture readings and assignments scanned online and coursework submitted via a Web portal.

“The learning curve is steeper online,” she said. “We use a student support coordinator, as well as professors and advisors to help our students navigate the online classroom experience. We work hard to get students used to the online environment, and bring high-touch’ to high-tech.”

Jeff Greim, assistant professor of nonprofit management at Bay Path, said he takes the “high-touch” motto one step further, by scheduling several phone chats with individual students throughout the semester. He also uses videos weekly to introduce new material and summarize what has been covered during the week prior. There are also Podcasts for students taking online courses.

Students who enjoy communicating via email and texting would be ideal candidates for online courses, Greim said, because this is how class discussions take place week after week.

“I think there are some people who thrive in the online world, because they are comfortable using technology to correspond in their daily personal lives,” he said. “Online, half or more of the dialog is in that format. Some people don’t even like to talk on the telephone. They like to socialize with their fellow students and professors, so it may take that type of person longer to adjust online.”

There are nearly 100 students enrolled in the nonprofit management degree program at Bay Path, with 43 working toward their degrees completely online, Dael said. On average, the vast majority of students in the overall program are women and two-thirds of the students are working in the sector. Bay Path also uses a program called Illuminate for its online courses, which is a split screen, allowing students and professors to pull up and manipulate material during discussions.

At the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management at North Park University in Chicago, Ill., student surveys have consistently shown that students perform better in online courses than they do in on-site courses. Wes Lindahl, dean of the school of Business and Nonprofit Management and Nils Axelson professor of Nonprofit Management, said the online course format is quickly growing at the center, with nearly 60 of the 150 students in the nonprofit management program taking courses online.

Although they might be learning online, these students are still interacting with one another through written discussion forums and assignments. The entire nonprofit management program is available online, Lindahl said, as well as the majority of certificate programs from the Axelson center. Students can also combine some on-site classes with online classes to attain their degrees.

“I think the online component of this is going to continue to be quite strong,” he said. “There is still room for face-to-face learning, but online is the leading and growing edge.”

Lindahl said he teaches several fundraising classes online, some of which require students to post videos on a forum to be critiqued by classmates and professors. Students also work on team building exercises by posting to a joint Wiki computer to work on reports.

“You can create almost any setting online now,” he said. “People are connected so much by the computer that it is good to learn in itself.”

The average age for a nonprofit management student online at the center is between 25 and 29, and 70 percent of students are female, based on 2010 graduate student surveys. Of these students, 73 percent were currently employed in the nonprofit sector, Lindahl said.

Kristen Sosulski, academic director at New York University’s (NYU) School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS) Distance Learning program, said the school’s online courses are often blended with in-person and online components. Learning materials and student research opportunities are available online, and large class discussions are also held in this format, even for on-site courses.

The SCPS offers 14 different 90-minute webinars over the course of the year, and each student can take up to four webinars for free, so they can experience what it is like to be an online student. Sosulski said the webinars have had audiences of up to 100 over the past year.

At the time, only two courses in the nonprofit management program at the George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising in the SCPS are available; one in ethics and laws of nonprofits and another in fundraising concepts and practices, however neither course is for credit. The Heyman Center has 1,500 students, with approximately 50 of them being master’s students, she said.

“We started with the webinars to give students a preview of what it is to be an online student,” Sosulski said. “You have to look at how comfortable you are using the Web communicating, and collaborating with students live or online.”

Online courses have enrollments of between 15 and 20 students, as do on-site courses, she said, however face-to-face classes often have more sections offered to accommodate a greater number of students. Online students at the Heyman Center are typically in their 30s, with 70 percent enrolled living in the tri-state area, and the remaining 30 percent living elsewhere in the U.S. and internationally. The SCPS plans to grow its online course program with more offerings in Spring 2011, Sosulski said.

Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government Executive Online programs are also relatively new to the arena, but have gained significant momentum during the past two years. In 2009, 209 of the 3140 Executive Education program attendees were enrolled in online coursework. Christine Letts, senior associate dean for executive education at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Kennedy School, said experimenting with different framework has helped the school break through its preconceived notions about what online courses should be.

“The formats and cases we use in class and online are the same,” Letts said. “The discussions people are having online are sometimes better and more in-depth because they have to write down their analysis instead of talking in class.”

Ty Henry, associate director of Program Operations and program director of Executive Education online at the school, said discussions have evolved since the online format’s inception. Originally, class analyses appeared through a blog-style discussion board, and now they are held through webinar-style meetings with video and audio for students to be more interactive.

Studying online over a longer period of time allows students to actually apply the material they are learning in their workplace, Henry said.

“It is one of the things that is especially useful and effective about online,” he said, “you don’t leave work to study, and you can literally see a project in your work unfold.”

The next step for the Kennedy School is to venture into teaching leadership online, Letts said. The school currently offers five online programs, one on-campus program and one off-site program in its Nonprofit and NGO portfolio of courses.

Columbia University in New York City is in the preliminary stages of adding online courses to its Master of Science in Fundraising Management program, according to Lucas Rubin, program director. Rubin said the school is considering hybrid course models, and the introduction of technology into the nonprofit management program provides endless opportunities.

“It liberates us from the constraints of the classroom,” he said. “Columbia tried this in the 1990s and it failed, but now we have the intellectual architecture and the technology to do it. I have never been in a place that is more exciting and optimistic to work in than right now.”

Some material like finance and grants coursework would make a natural transition into the world of online academia, he said, and courses with similar materials would have the option of sharing resources online. Rubin said he believes Columbia will begin to roll out online coursework within the next year.

Figuring out which format of learning will work best for your schedule is trial and error, Lindahl said. The best way to decide is by testing out an online course to see if the learning style fits yours. Students need access to quality computer equipment and also need to be able to learn through written material rather than oral discussion to be well suited to learning online, he said.

“A common misconception is that online courses are easier, or take a lot less time,” Lindahl said. “Students surveyed said they actually spent more time on their online courses, at 12 hours per week, instead of 10 hours per week on face-to-face courses.”

Contrary to popular belief, students taking courses online still do get bonding time with one another, Dael said. Bay Path sets up assignments for them to get to know each other and the material in depth.

Greim said the advanced learning situations that online courses provide push students to think about the material in new ways.

“It’s high touch and interactive thinking,” he said of online courses, “and that really is what graduate work is all about.”

Advanced technology has allowed online courses to flourish in recent years, Rubin said, and students should evaluate an online course in the same way they would an onsite course before deciding to enroll. Schools need to work to develop cohesive online nonprofit management programs in order to attract and retain students.

“At the end of the day, if you put a crappy product out there, it’s bad collectively for all programs in fundraising,” he said. NPT