USC Making the Most of Online Education

Training surgeons in Armenia? Learning therapy without meeting face to face? Playing a covert game all over campus instead of freshman orientation seminars? They've done it. At the University of Southern California's annual Provost/Academic Senate Retreat, professors shared the most innovative new ideas in online learning. Merrill Balassone, writing for USC News, found the stereotype of the "online traffic school" model has little to do with today's online university.

The topic for the annual professors' retreat was how technology is changing USC.

Dozens of speakers shared their technology-enhanced learning breakthroughs — large and small — with colleagues to inspire others to follow their example in changing how USC professors teach and students learn.

"We are facing dramatic changes in the way our student population communicates, learns and interacts with their peers," said Professor Patricia Riley, president of the Academic Senate, who presided over the retreat. "Their technological competence far surpasses many of their professors."

Using Slingbox, a device that transmits television programs to mobile devices or laptop computers, one USC professor created a "telemedicine portal" for training doctors at a distance. He trained pediatricians in Armenia in how to treat a disease that was causing blindness in newborn babies. Distance learning and interactivity were common themes of other faculty speakers, though no other story was quite as dramatic. Offering a Master of Social Work in an online format, professors needed to train graduate students in therapy techniques even when they were far away. With an actor portraying a troubled military veteran, students can use webcams to interact with a "client" as professors watch and comment. USC's Master of Arts in Teaching uses interactive websites with complex screens that can show many people participating at once.

Not all "online" programs depend on high technology to overcome distance. USC's School of Cinematic Arts created an orientation program that uses the real world as its theater and works with people face to face. Alternative reality games are an increasingly popular way to help people get acquainted or build a sense of community. They designed an alternative reality game called "Reality Ends Here." In it, students collaborate on animation and media projects that force them to range about the campus and learn about its buildings. Using idea cards and the real campus, they create film projects to upload to a website.

Elizabeth Garrett, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, praised the strength of USC's online programs, including the USC Viterbi School of Engineering's recent No. 1 rankings in two online education categories by U.S. News & World Report. She also reiterated the university's goal to double its distance-learning enrollment and online master's degree offerings within five years.

As online education options grow, many universities are experimenting with how they will integrate them into traditional teaching. In addition to offering a limited number of classes online, some campus classrooms are using online sources with in-person, not just distance, learning. California has been a leader in this area. Former Stanford faculty created Coursera, the largest Massive Open Online Course provider. The University of California's campuses are supposed to find ways to put many more of their course offerings into online distance formats. Many schools will be looking at USC's successful models as presented at the January retreat.

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