By: Lisa GoffPublished: March 4, 2007 - Crain's New York Business
Kate Fox got a bachelor's and a master's degree from The New School, and last semester she taught a journalism class for the university. Thanks to the most sophisticated online learning program in the city, she did it all without setting foot in a New School classroom.
"Attending The New School had always been my dream," says Ms. Fox, who got her degrees while working full-time in Texas and then California. She now teaches her class from Oregon, where she owns a bookstore and a consulting business.
Ms. Fox is typical of a new breed of continuing-education students who are earning degrees partly or completely online. While New York is behind other metro areas in the distance-learning business, The New School's program is fast becoming a national model. And New York University, with one failed experiment under its belt, is readying an online comeback.
"Most schools that leapt into the distance-learning field in the late 1980s and early 1990s misjudged their market," says Stephen Anspacher, who helped develop The New School's online program in 1993 and is launching an online program for Hofstra University this fall.
Their big mistake was assuming that online classes would appeal primarily to nondegree students taking classes for personal enrichment.
That led to grandiose flops such as Columbia University's Fathom and NYUonline. Columbia sank $30 million into its e-learning venture in 2000, closing it three years later, after receiving critical acclaim but measly enrollment. Similarly, NYUonline - like Fathom, a for-profit venture - closed in 2001 after three lackluster years and a $20 million investment.
The successful programs, like The New School's, envisioned online learning as an extension of an existing curriculum and offered credit and noncredit courses for the same price as regular classes. They marketed their programs to degree candidates who wanted something more prestigious than a University of Phoenix education, but who could not attend on-site classes.
The secret of The New School's online program is that "it's not radically different from our regular classes," says Timothy Quigley, director of the bachelor's program. Online classes are limited to 15 students and taught by New School professors, mirroring the university's seminar format. Professors provide background information, direct the class toward Web links and guide discussions, which continue in online forums.
"It's the most Socratic kind of teaching you can imagine," says Ms. Fox. "In many ways, it's more rigorous than a classroom, because you can't get points for just showing up - you have to have something to say."
Because online classes are more intensive, The New School cut the duration almost in half, to nine weeks. That shortens the time it takes to get a degree - and increases enrollment. More than 1,000 students are now taking online courses, and online enrollment is increasing at more than 10% a year. Nearly 10% of students in the school's adult B.A. program are now doing all of their course work online.
Further uptown, Columbia now offers for-credit online courses only in its engineering school. The model is low-tech: professors are videotaped giving lectures, which are made available online. Enrollment is strong at 400 to 600 students, but the university currently has no plans to expand its online presence.
NYU, however, is itching to get back in the game. A year ago, the school hired Robert Lapiner - who established UCLA's extensive online program - to be the new dean of its School of Continuing Education.
"We're reconceptualizing our distance-learning approach," says Mr. Lapiner, who wants to increase the number of classes available online, especially in the professional certificate and master's programs. He plans to focus on sectors such as hospitality and global affairs, which employ many New Yorkers.
Mr. Lapiner also plans to decentralize distance learning, embedding it in established programs. Greater faculty control hopefully will inspire greater participation from professors and make the online classes feel more like "real" classes.
"Successful online programs have found a way to make the online world more tangible, to re-create some of the feel of the campus online," says Richard Garrett, a senior analyst at consulting firm Eduventures Inc.
Nationally, the trend is toward such "blended" classes, which mandate a certain amount of face-to-face contact. Just 8.5% of degree candidates - just 1.5 million people - are taking all of their classes online.
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