Syracuse University Magazine

Online Edge

Online Edge

Distance learning gains momentum at SU with innovative graduate programs

By Kathleen Haley

Nina Disi attends her MBA classes on Sunday nights. She checks in with the professor, greets fellow students, and prepares for a full class with discussions, breakout groups, and in-class assignments. This traditional classroom, however, is hardly that. The classroom experience takes place all in the comfort of her own home—or wherever she happens to be with her laptop. Disi is an inaugural student in the MBA@Syracuse program that launched in January through the Martin J. Whitman School of Management. The program was created in partnership with 2U Inc., a Maryland-based leading education technology services firm that provides an online platform of live face-to-face sessions with professors and classmates, prerecorded sessions, and access to coursework anytime. “I complete my reading and the prerecorded session before the live class. In class, the professor leads the discussion while the Syracuse-2U platform allows me to learn alongside all my classmates, which I thoroughly enjoy,” says Disi, who works in the digital advertising field. “I thought I would have wanted that in-person classroom experience, but I would have missed a lot of classes due to business travel. The Syracuse-2U platform is just what I needed.”

The technology and enhanced modes of learning online are making it possible for more students—wherever in the world they may be—to have the Syracuse University experience. The recent 2U partnership, with its face-to-face interaction and such components as on-campus and international residencies, adds to the draw of a more expansive online program experience. Disi, who selected the MBA@Syracuse program after researching various other options, appreciates being able to interact with her classmates and professor in the 2U platform—in class, during student-hosted study groups, and during the professor’s office hours. And she met up with members of her Financial Accounting class at a weekend residency on campus this spring. “It’s nice to still have that personal one-on-one connection, which the 2U platform allows you to establish,” Disi says.

MBA@Syracuse, which replaces Whitman’s iMBA online program, is the first Syracuse University program to roll out through 2U. It welcomed an inaugural cohort of 98 students—the largest class in Whitman MBA history. Accounting@Syracuse, also at Whitman, launched this summer, and Communications@Syracuse, a first-of-its-kind program for the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications that emphasizes digital trends and innovation, began in July.

The demand for such online programs was made apparent shortly after the Newhouse School announced Communications@Syracuse in January. Admissions officials received the first application within four hours of the announcement. By the second day, there were two applications submitted, 22 started applications, and another 131 interested prospects. “That says to me a couple of things: The Syracuse University brand is very strong, and there are people who are really craving to do a master’s degree online in a flexible way, but they can’t figure out how to accomplish it,” says Amy Falkner G’89, Newhouse School senior associate dean for academic affairs and professor of advertising. “The holdup is they can’t physically get here. Now we’ve eliminated that obstacle.” As of June, the program had enrolled 30 students who hail from nine states and include one active military member stationed in Germany, represent an average age of 27, and have about eight years of work experience.

Administrators strive to ensure that the programs through 2U Inc., which has partnered with other universities in providing online graduate programs, match the educational experience of traditional on-campus offerings. “It’s the immersive course content, live online classes, in-person residencies, social interactions, and the highest quality student support that make these online programs equal to on-campus,” says Andrew Hermalyn, 2U executive vice president and general manager. “Syracuse University is embracing change and an entrepreneurial spirit through high-quality online education. Our partnership will enable the University to bring its rigorous academic programs to high-achieving students around the world.”

Along with the 2U programs at Newhouse and Whitman, all master’s degree programs and graduate certificates of advanced study at the School of Information Studies, with a few exceptions, can be completed online. The College of Engineering and Computer Science also offers online master’s degree programs in computer engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science. “We have long had great educational programs for you if you can come to Syracuse for a master’s program,” says Chris Sedore, senior vice president for enrollment management. “But if you’re in the middle of your career or otherwise place bound, we still want you to have the opportunity to earn a Syracuse master’s degree without having to relocate.”


Flexible Studies

Prospective students may need the degree to update their skills, advance their career, or shift to a different professional focus, but they aren’t able to place their job on hold or interrupt their personal lives to come to Syracuse. Students in the first class of MBA@Syracuse hail from all across the United States and five countries, with ages ranging from 24 to 60 years old, and representing professionals at different stages of their careers. The average age is 35 years old with 11 years of work experience. “As I read application essays, I see so many people who write ‘I just know I need to get this degree in order for me to be considered for a position of greater responsibility or promotion,’” says Amy McHale, assistant dean for master’s programs at the Whitman School.

Another MBA@Syracuse student, Allison Leigh Shok, applied as she was finishing her four years as an officer in the U.S. Army and wanted to take advantage of the GI Bill. “I knew there would be struggles, because math is certainly not my forte,” says Shok, who is marketing manager for a restaurant chain. “But I knew that if I wanted to get ahead after my military career, I needed to choose a reputable school that could meet my needs of being far away in Pennsylvania.”

Shok’s experience with the MBA@Syracuse program has met her expectations. “I definitely had some nerves about being in my comfy office chair in my home, trying to focus on my computer screen,” she says. “But the material has been so engaging that I have been shocked every time class comes to an end because it goes by so quickly.” She misses the in-person interactions that she experienced as an undergraduate and graduate student, but has developed a core group of friends, and her professors are easily accessible, such as when Shok needed assistance in Financial Accounting taught by Professor Joseph Comprix. “He assured me that if I didn’t understand a concept, he would be available to help,” Shok says. “The professors are only an email away.”

The program’s classes are small—about 12 to 15 students each—which enables Comprix to learn how well they have grasped the material and also to get to know the students before the on-campus residency. “Since the course, I have had the opportunity to see a lot of them on campus and it was like meeting up with old friends,” says Comprix, chair of the Joseph I. Lubin School of Accounting. The 2U format also allows students the ability to replay the lectures to help them better understand the material. “However, it is important to keep students engaged with the course since I don’t see them in person very often,” Comprix says. He uses the live sessions to keep them up to speed, including posting problem sets before the class and going through them together.

New Approach to Teaching

In preparation of launching the new MBA@Syracuse program, classes were planned months in advance to accommodate plotting the syllabus in both the live and prerecorded sessions, filming the sessions in Arlington, Virginia, and editing of the segments. Professor Scott Lathrop spent four, eight-hour days filming 20 recorded hours with 2U producers for his course, Marketing Management, which he also taught in the iMBA program. The material is similar, but the pace is quicker and the assignments more concentrated since the calendar operates in 10-week quarters, with an additional week for finals, instead of the traditional 14-week semester, plus an additional week for finals.

For Lathrop, the most significant advantage of MBA@Syracuse is the opportunity to speak with every student on screen each week. In the iMBA program format, professors only met students for the first few days of the course and then on the last day, with email and Blackboard discussions in between. In contrast, the MBA@Syracuse format allows for an interactive online classroom-style discussion and then a wrap-up of key learning points every week. “I’m able to assess each student’s progress in honing their ability to critically evaluate case situations, make business decisions, and recommend actionable marketing plans,” Lathrop says.

The format and the small class size also allow for a greater sense of camaraderie and enable him to learn students’ names more quickly, since names are posted on each student’s individual video feed. The system also provides more about students’ personal backgrounds—where they live, their interests, and what they hope to achieve in the course. “It might seem counterintuitive, but this format actually enables a degree of personal interaction that isn’t always possible in a traditional classroom,” Lathrop says. He even learned about the students from the various backdrops during the live sessions, whether it was the huge “Go Gators” banner behind the University of Florida graduate or the student who did her video feeds from a local library. “The best moments happened when students’ pets or young children wandered into frame,” Lathrop says. “It gave me better insight into the sacrifice some of the students are making to get their degree. I admire that kind of initiative and motivation—it’s inspiring and drives me to be a better teacher.”

As she prepares for the launch of Communications@Syracuse, Barbara Fought, who will be co-teaching Media Law with Dean Emeritus and Professor David Rubin, remembers her own experience as a student in an online class—a MOOC (massive online open course) on investigative reporting. “It showed me the value of distance learning and allowed me to be more receptive and have an understanding from the student’s viewpoint,” says Fought, a broadcast journalism professor at the Newhouse School and a Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor of Teaching Excellence. She found that time management was key. “It takes a lot of discipline as a student, but I was surprised at how well it worked,” Fought says. “I also got to interact with journalists around the world. I see the value of that world community in online teaching.”

Fought expects that many of the students entering the program already work in the communications profession, and is looking forward to getting to know them. “I’m hoping I might learn from them, particularly if they are in the communications industry,” she says. “It helps keep me fresh on current issues in the industry.”

To attract a variety of communications professionals, the program offers three tracks—advertising, public relations, and journalism innovation. It features pieces from existing master’s programs, including such staples as media law and an applied research class, but was built to include new core courses, including Introduction to Digital Communications, Digital Communications Systems, and a capstone course, Digital Communications Strategy and Entrepreneurship, as well as required courses in social media and multimedia storytelling.

Due to the time and expense of putting together the prerecorded or asynchronous sessions, the goal is for the sessions to last four or five years. “We try to anticipate what might change over the coming years and note that while we are recording,” Fought says. For example, a media law case may be pending this summer and resolved during another term, so the information might have to be updated in a live session. It’s a challenging venture, but as lifelong learners, teachers are intrigued by this new style of teaching, Fought says. “Most industries are changing with technology, and certainly higher education has to change, too.”

The success of these types of high-quality online programs—and future demand—is crucial to determining whether more traditional classroom-oriented programs can be duplicated online. “At the graduate level, there are some programs that lend themselves well to an online format,” Sedore says. “I expect where we see opportunities for new online offerings, we will explore those and build them out where they make sense for the programs and the prospective students.” «


William Walsh G’90, professor of accounting practice and director of the Joseph I. Lubin School of Accounting at the Whitman School of Management, works on a prerecorded session for a class in the Accounting@Syracuse online program that launched this summer.



Newhouse School Dean Emeritus and Professor David Rubin (above) and broadcast journalism professor Barbara Fought (above, second image) record lectures for Media Law, a course they are co-teaching in the Communications@Syracuse program.


The SYRACUSE-2U online platform allows students to access prerecorded class sessions at any time from anywhere. For live classes, they can view their classmates and professors while engaging in discussions.

Photos courtesy of 2U Inc., except where noted



The MBA@Syracuse program hosted its first three-day residency in April, welcoming students from around the globe. Derrick Suehs (speaking above), chief quality officer at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, led the first keynote presentation, “Chaos in Health Care.” He discussed the interconnectedness of America’s health care system and reviewed the forces shaping the need for creative approaches to health care. Students worked in breakout sessions to identify opportunities to apply what they learned.

Photos by James Vivenzio and Steve Sartori

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