So says U.S. News and World Report, which today released its third annual rankings of online programs – the only ones published that compare data of online degree programs rather than the schools that offer them.
The NIU College of Education jumped from last year’s No. 4 ranking to earn a perfect score of 100 and sit atop a list of 170 graduated schools ranked. This year’s measurements incorporate program ratings by peer institutions and assign greater weight to student engagement.
“This top ranking is a result of our continuing efforts to serve our scholars’ technology-driven lifestyles and set a high standard for online education,” said Dean LaVonne I. Neal. “I am proud of the efforts of our faculty and staff to uncompromisingly maintain our tradition of high quality education.”
Online courses are offered in the college’s departments of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations (LEPF), chaired by Patrick Roberts, and Educational Technology, Research and Assessment (ETRA), chaired by Wei-Chen Hung.
ETRA offers a program aimed at students wanting to become technology specialists, and LEPF has a program for students wanting to become school business managers. The programs began in 2009 and offer cohorts that typically graduate within two years: 85 percent of all students enrolled graduate in two years. There are currently four cohorts with a total of 121 students enrolled.
U.S. News assessed nearly 1,000 such programs, up more than 16 percent from the 2013 list, in recognition of the growing role of online education “in the higher education landscape.”
“Students and employers are increasingly finding value in the way subjects can be mastered in a digital environment,” the magazine wrote. “Schools are responding with a proliferation of course offerings.”
Programs ranked are those which grant degrees and offer the classes needed to complete those degree completely online – the federal government standard for qualifying as distance learning programs.
Although blended learning programs that combine courses in brick-and-mortar classrooms and online education were not considered, programs with orientations, testing and support services with in-person requirements did figure in the mix.
NIU scored well in three of the four measurement categories.
Under “Student Engagement,” which considers student satisfaction and instructor responsiveness, NIU received 92 points of a possible 100.
“Much like in a classroom setting, quality online graduate education programs grant aspiring teachers and educational administrators opportunities to readily interact with their instructors and fellow classmates,” U.S. News wrote. “In turn, instructors are not only accessible and responsive, but they are also tasked with helping to create an experience rewarding enough that students stay enrolled and complete their degrees in a reasonable amount of time.”
“We know that the network our scholars build in these programs is critical to their future success, so that is why engagement is a focus of our programming,” Neal said.
In the Faculty Credentials and Training category – how well a school prepares qualified instructors to teach remotely – NIU notched an 88.
Scores recognize “strong online programs (that) employ instructors with academic credentials one would expect from a campus-based program, and have the resources to train these instructors on how to teach distance learners.”
NIU earned 76 points in the “Student Services and Technology” measurement of the amount of financial, technical and vocational support available to distance learners.
The new consideration of “Peer Reputation” brought in industry opinion on “intangible factors on program quality not captured by statistics … degrees with strong perceptions of quality among academics may be held in higher regard among employers.” NIU received 3.5 points of a possible 5.
Brad Hawk, an assistant professor in LEPF, said his department offers a master’s degree program and certification-only program.
Students can earn a master’s degree by going through a sequence of 36 credit hours. The certification program is tailored for students that already have a master’s degree and are seeking state certification, which requires 30 credit hours.
The courses are built moving from organization theory and understanding the position of being a school business manager to final courses that focus on advanced accounting, developing long-range projections for a school district and facility management.
“Our school business management program is really built on the strengths of our outstanding faculty,” Roberts said. “They are highly qualified experts in their various fields who are committed to innovative and responsive online teaching and learning. They are also committed to providing students with a relevant, high quality curriculum that promotes academic achievement and career success. This speaks highly of NIU’s commitment to student career success.”
Hawk added that because his program requires students to serve on a statewide committee, LEPF’s partnership with the Illinois Association of School Business Officials (IASBO) has made a huge impact.
“Internships are critical to career success and student engagement,” he said. “Our IASBO partnership proves that the networks developed through these endeavors prepares students to be career ready upon graduation,” he said.
John Cowan, assistant professor of instructional technology in ETRA since 2009, was part of a team effort with ETRA staff and instructional technology faculty to move the program from a traditional face-to-face model to an online program. Online support specialist Judy Puskar coordinated program development and students support; Karen Woodworth-Roman contributed to the recruitment and retention effort.
The process took about one year, and the first cohort launched in 2010.
Forty-one students currently comprise the two current cohorts, which employ a curriculum geared toward people who want to become technology leaders in their school districts. Students come together early on for orientation and collaborate online afterward.
“The group work fosters a real sense of community and relationships,” Cowan said. “Our retention is great – we don’t lose students. That’s because they are connected, engaged and working together. It’s really about the power of people interacting together to acquire knowledge of how to do innovative things with technology with kids in schools.”
For more information on the NIU College of Education, call (815) 753-1948 or email [email protected].