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U.S. News spotlights NIU College of Education on honor roll for online graduate programs

January 13, 2012
La Vonne I. Neal

La Vonne I. Neal

Northern Illinois University’s oldest college was honored this week for its excellence in harnessing cutting-edge technology to educate the next generation of teachers and school administrators.

U.S News and World Report announced Tuesday that the NIU College of Education had earned a place on its Honor Roll for Online Graduate Education Programs. Only 14 programs in the nation were afforded that distinction.

La Vonne I. Neal, dean of the college, was delighted to see the online programs receiving such recognition.

“Our faculty and staff recognized that change was appropriate in order to prepare premier professional educators, leaders and scholars for the 21st century. They took action to design and offer online education programs, and I am thrilled those efforts are being recognized by U.S. News and World Report,” Neal said.

“To be declared a leader in Online Graduate Education Programs confirms that we are on the right path to lead meaningful change.”

From an initial field of more than 1,000 graduate programs in education, U.S. News narrowed the field to 161 meeting a specific set of criteria for online offerings.

Among those finalists, the NIU College of Education was ranked:

  • First in the nation for the credentials of its online faculty.
  • Seventh in student services and technology for online courses.
  • Twenty-sixth for student engagement and accreditation.

Nearly every graduate level program in NIU’s College of Education has an online component.

Two departments offer degrees that can be earned almost entirely online: the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment program aimed at individuals striving to become school technology specialists, and the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations program for individuals wishing to become school business managers.

Both of those programs had excellent reputations long before they were delivered online about two years ago.

Jeff Hecht

Jeff Hecht

“When people around the country talk about top programs in instructional technology, NIU is always part of the discussion, and our LEPF program is the top trainer of school business officials in the state,” said Associate Dean Jeff Hecht. “Our faculty was insistent that when we took those classes online that the quality be at least the equal of face-to-face classes and that the rigor be no different.”

Ensuring that consistency was not too difficult.

In many instances the same faculty teach both the traditional and online versions of the classes, working to exploit the advantages of each medium, Hecht added.

That helped propel NIU to the top of the rankings for faculty as the university was one of only two programs in the nation that could claim that 100 percent of its online faculty held doctoral degrees, had two or more years experience in online instruction and had received specialized training for teaching in that medium.

The college’s other Top 10 placement, for technology, came as no surprise to Neal, who is proud to point out that the college has made a commitment to not only providing, but also supporting, the latest technology for students.

“Our buildings are now wireless and we have created a Technology Oasis for students to receive personalized support for problems on a variety of technology platforms and in the use of advanced software,” she points out.

NIU mobile appEven before those innovations, the college had been an enthusiastic early adopter of technology. It was the first college on campus to create a website optimized for mobile devices, Hecht said, and was quick to take advantage of the university’s smart phone application when it was released last year.

As for online classes, the college strives to ensure that they are more than taped versions of classroom lectures, Hecht said.

Instructors leverage the flexibility offered by online classes by breaking down classroom lectures into smaller components, building in multi-media content and creating podcasts that walk students through specific projects or delve more deeply into an important aspect of a subject.

NIU programs also scored well for the support provided to online students.

According to the survey, faculty typically responded to inquiries or requests for help within 24 hours and made regular use of software such as Adobe Connect to tutor or consult with students via the Internet.

The online offerings from ETRA and LEPF have been popular with both faculty and students.

Lara Luetkehans and Charles Howell

Lara Luetkehans and Charles Howell

Of the 26 students who enrolled in ETRA’s first 14-month accelerated program for school technologists, 90 percent completed the program on time, and half of those had job offers prior to graduation, said Lara Luetkehans, chair of ETRA. In LEPF, the first two cohorts filled up quickly, and a third cohort scheduled to start later this spring is nearly full already.

In LEPF, even faculty who had little experience with online technology have become enthusiastic about it, with several finding ways to incorporate online learning into their on-campus classes, said Charles Howell, who chairs that department.

The U.S. News and World Report rankings were based on a survey of 161 colleges of education that met their criteria for offering online graduate programs – those in which course content was at least 80 percent accessible to students online. Other schools on the honor roll include Auburn, Syracuse, Nebraska and Bowling Green State.

NIU’s College of Education is a link to the university’s roots as a teacher’s college that opened in 1899 to train teachers to work in one-room school houses that dotted the prairies. The university remained primarily known for teacher education for more than half a century. One of the largest colleges of education in the state, it claims amongst its graduates one in four school superintendents in Illinois.

While proud of its history, the college keeps its focus on the future. Online learning is a key part of that.

“The NIU Vision 2020 plan inspires us to become more student-centered and promote faculty, staff and facility excellence,” Neal said. “At the College of Education, we recognize our students rely heavily on technology and that they are also seeking different learning options and opportunities.”

For more information on graduate programs in the NIU College of Education, visit or call (815) 753-1948.