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High Quality Online Learning: A Discussion with USC's Karen Gallagher
February 14, 2013 - 9:00pm

Karen Symms Gallagher, Dean of USC Rossier School of Education, caught my eye for two reasons.   

First, I read a couple of opinion pieces in which she argued that we need to look beyond MOOCs to the potential of providing extremely high quality and intimate for-credit degree programs that leverage new options in technology and new opportunities in non-profit / for-profit partnerships.   These columns, including Higher Ed Leaders Must Lead Online and Rethinking Higher Ed Open Online Learning stand apart for their combination of a progressive call for innovation in online education and skepticism that the locus of this innovation is limited to the world of MOOCs.

The second reason that Karen ended up on my radar screen was her designation as a  Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow.   This prestigious fellowship, which is given to only two dozen educators a year, is designed to "support extraordinary entrepreneurial leaders who are committed to transforming public education." 

The fact that Karen is a strong voice for innovation in new online learning models within the context of high quality degree programs makes her selection as a Pahara-Aspen Fellow a noteworthy development.   Discussions about online education have largely bifurcated around the MOOCs or the for-profit world, with too little attention paid to advances in the quality of online and blended programs offered at highly selective institutions.  The Pahara-Aspen Fellowship may prove to be an ideal platform in which to introduce new ideas and models into the larger conversation.

Karen graciously agreed to participate in an e-mail discussion to explore her ideas around how higher ed leaders can advance both our thinking and our models around online education.

Question:  Can you briefly describe what USC has been up to with online education?

When USC President Max Nikias announced that online education must be a priority for graduate programs, we saw the rest of the university catching up with us.  Every school has been charged with moving forward with an online program, and I’m proud that the USC Rossier School was three years ahead of many others.  We launched our online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT@USC) in June of 2009, and believe me we had our skeptics at the time! How can you possibly teach teaching online?   But we are mission-driven:  all our work is designed to further our mission to improve learning in urban schools locally, nationally and globally.   Our vision is that every student, regardless of personal circumstance, can learn and succeed.  We are not a boutique school with a few students and faculty; true impact in education requires thoughtful scale.  

The only way to scale up was to take the program online.  That’s one difference between us and most of the other schools at USC. The need in this country for more high quality teachers has never been greater.  Besides receiving the masters degree from USC, students also earn a California teacher credential.  This is important to note because we have to meet the high standards of both USC and the California Commission for Teacher Credentialing.  So, students must not only meet every week via live classes using such tools as Adobe Connect, but each student is placed in a school in his or her local community from the beginning of the program  Since the online MAT started, we have graduated over 1200 students living in all 50 states and over 40 countries.  We have partnered with over 1400 school districts. And we are expanding with new online programs this year.
 
 Question:  What was your rationale to partner with 2U rather than do everything internally?
 
The issue was capacity.  We knew the content and curriculum, we had the best faculty, and we had a track record of preparing high quality teachers, but we also knew knew we did not have the expertise to build and maintain the type of Learning Management System (LMS) that would adequately support our program.  We were not going to shortchange our students in any way.  We wanted a robust, interactive, synchronous, live experience for our students and we also wanted the back-end infrastructure to be maintained by experts, so that the functioning of the technology was always sound.  John Katzman and his team at 2U (then 2Tor) worked with us hand-in-hand until we had a platform that we knew was worthy of our quality program.
 
 Question:  You have been somewhat skeptical of MOOCs in your writing, and I gather that this is not the strategic direction that USC is going.  Can you elaborate?
 

I am actually taking a MOOC course myself right now through Coursera.  Me and 260,000 of my closest friends!  I wanted to experience for myself what all the hype is about.  And as I’ve said before, I can’t help comparing them to The Great Courses, audio tapes of wonderful classes from top universities, which my husband and I always enjoyed.  I’m absorbing information, but I’m certainly not interacting in any meaningful or face-to-face discussions. Now there is a certain amount of interactivity with my MOOC experience, I’ll admit. You can post comments through many different social media during the MOOC course which, because of the number of participants, is a bit like drinking through a fire hose.  If you think of the credits rolling by at the end of a movie, that is how fast comments roll by while reading content or watching UTube videos.  I find it almost impossible to gain anything of substance from my fellow students’ postings because they are coming so fast and furiously, and often superficially.

The kind of robust interactivity and quality demanded by a hybrid degree program like Rossier’s Master of Arts in Teaching does not come cheaply, and it certainly doesn’t come for free, like the MOOC I’m taking.
This is the difficulty with a broad term like “online”. We’re talking about apples and oranges.  But the language we use currently to categorize online education is not refined enough to differentiate experiences or signify quality.
 
 Question:  Tell us about the Pahara-Aspen Education Fellowship.  What will this designation allow you to accomplish?  What are your goals to leverage this honor?   
 
It was a true honor to be selected for this Fellowship, and I’m eager to meet with my new colleagues and begin this two-year experience.   We will meet for the first time next month, so our goals as a group will be formed then.  It is flattering that for the first time they brought a dean from a School of Education to this prestigious table.  I think that programs like our online MAT and our new LAUSD charter school, USC Hybrid High School, speak loudly about us.  Our work is bold.  It can be risky.  Our mission demands that of us.  Or as I like to say, the Rossier School of Education is not your grandmother’s school of education.

What questions do you have for Karen?

 

 

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