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College of Ed ‘at the forefront of online learning’

January 17, 2013
College of Education Dean La Vonne I. Neal

La Vonne I. Neal

U.S. News & World Report this week ranked the NIU College of Education’s online graduate program fourth in the nation, testimony to the college’s commitment to providing innovative solutions to students’ ever-evolving needs.

This year marks the first time the magazine has ranked online college and graduate degree programs, a nod to the ever-increasing demand for quality online education across the country. Last year, the magazine placed the NIU College of Education’s online graduate program among the top 14 in the country, without a specific ranking.

LaVonne I. Neal, dean of the college, said the recognition by U.S. News and World Report underscores the college’s vision and planning efforts.

“I am proud and delighted that the efforts of our faculty and staff to pioneer programs that prepare our students to be leaders in the 21st century are being recognized,” Neal said. “This is a result of an intentional process aimed at positioning our college, our faculty and staff, and our students to maintain our high quality tradition of education while adapting to the tools required of them to succeed and lead in the 21st century.”

Creating the rankings was a two-step process that involved first compiling a list of schools offering masters of education programs online, and then collecting data from those schools. A total of 208 schools nationwide met that basic criterion. The magazine then looked at four areas: admissions selectivity, student engagement, faculty credentials and training, and student services and technology.

The top three colleges were New York’s St. John’s University, Auburn University, and South Dakota University. The University of South Carolina rounded out the top five.

Two departments part of ranking

U.S. News & World Report official badge: Best Online Programs-Grad Education 2013The college has two options that offer full online master’s degree programs – the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment (ETRA) offers a program aimed at students wanting to become technology specialists, and the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations (LEPF) has a program for students wanting to become school business managers.

Lara Luetkehans, department chair for ETRA, said it simply made sense to do an online program for technical specialists.

While pioneering their online program, Luetkehans and colleagues made “critical decisions” that have come to serve as best practices in online education. Those decisions were to ensure the online courses were of the same quality as courses offered on campus, that the same faculty taught online classes, that the program still offered a sense of community, and that the online program still differentiated from the program offered on campus. The online program is offered as a 14-month long accelerated program.

“We felt we should be at the forefront of online learning,” she said.

Perhaps indicative of their success in that endeavor, the department has been invited to present to their colleagues across the state and country at conferences over the past few years.

Lara Luetkehans

Lara Luetkehans

Luetkehans credits the college’s disciplined approach to online learning, as well as exceptional faculty with their success so far.

“The support of the faculty and their training is a piece of this evaluation, and with online learning being a relatively new area, it was truly remarkable how many faculty and staff we already had with experience and training in these areas,” she said.

Brad Hawk, an assistant professor in LEPF, said his department’s school business management program includes a mix of online learning, in-person class meetings, and a three-semester internship. Hawk said the internship is a key part of the effort to establish and build community.

“The secret for success is always having a strong network of contacts,” Hawk said. “Being able to call people who are doing the same thing you are doing and ask questions. We had to have face to face.”

Sherry Reynolds-Whitaker is an adjunct teacher for Olivet Nazarene University. She enrolled in the NIU College of Education’s online school business management program wanting to combine her 20 years of experience in business with her desire to work in education. She knew the importance of face-to-face networking, but also needed the flexibility of an online degree program so she could still juggle a family and career.

“It’s really the real world aspect that is invaluable if you ask me,” she said, explaining that through her internship, she is working with school districts on projects that make a difference to students. “At the end of the day I wanted to give back in that way and this program gives me the opportunity to do that.”

Lauren Hummel, a school administrator with Township High School District 211, currently serves as food service director but saw the NIU online graduate program as an opportunity to advance. She said she doesn’t consider herself a typical student because she is a dietician by background, now working as a school administrator.

Graham Hall in winter

Graham Hall is one of the buildings that houses the NIU College of Education.

“I was a little apprehensive in the beginning because this is a degree so far from my original area of study,” she explained. “I was worried I wouldn’t learn as well from courses online without peer interaction. But, I have I never felt that way. I have formed friendships and professional references in all areas of the state as a result of this program. Any concerns I had were eliminated very quickly.”

Hawk said recruiting for his program’s next cohort takes place over the coming weeks, so the timing of this recognition is opportune. “Obviously when you get recognized you hope that those people out shopping for a new career or new program know this is a really good one,” he said.

Hawk oversees the interns in his program, and said that opportunity affords him quality time with many of his department’s alumni. The program launched three years ago, and has graduated three classes.

“When I go out to the schools, it’s interesting because the leadership almost all graduated from NIU,” he said. “They tell me, ‘You have to make sure your online program is just as good as the traditional on campus program because my degree is of value to me, and what you do with these students enhances the value of my degree.’ This recognition validates exactly what we’re trying to do.”

by Kate Braser