Are we ready to support online learners? This is the question that I posed in a previous post  this month. The answer, as read in the post comments, seems to be that we are not yet ready. So who is? Well, it turns out that a company in New York City might be stepping in to fill the void while student affairs figures out how best to support online learners.
2tor , founded in 2008, provides institutions with a package deal. Schools get a fully functional learning platform as well as a dedicated community manager. It's a unique relationship because 2tor is about relationships instead of just selling a product. They recently sent me an email, and unlike 99% of PR pitches that I get, this message was thoughtful and inline with the content that I write about. After an hour-long Skype conversation with Jenn Pedde, Community Manager for the MSW program at the University of Southern California, I decided to bombard Jenn and the folks at 2tor with a mammoth set of questions. Here is their rather engaging response which includes commentary from the Vice Dean of the USC School of Social Work:
2tor Basics from Chip Paucek, 2tor's President & Chief Operating Officer
How many schools is 2tor working with right now?
We are working with three universities on four programs (We work with USC on two programs). Our programs are:
- MAT@USC: Masters of Teaching from the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, http://mat.usc.edu 
- MSW@USC: Masters of Social Work from the University of Southern California School of Social Work, http://msw.usc.edu 
- Nursing@Georgetown: Master’s in Nursing from Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies, http://online.nursing.georgetown.edu/ 
- MBA@UNC: Masters in Business Administration from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School, http://onlinemba.unc.edu 
Most higher education solutions providers don't provide a community manager for their SIS/LMS, this really makes 2tor different in my mind. How many higher education community managers are there?
We have a community manager dedicated to each program, so we have four in total.
How does the funding model work?
2tor provides the initial funding to our partner universities to help them in build, launch and support a transformative online learning program. We believe that in order to truly make these online experiences great and to do it right, there needs to me some initial investments as it is operationally very different than a traditional on-campus program, for example, an online student can’t stop by the registrar’s office at 2 in the afternoon, we help to provide the infrastructure to make that possible.
With this investment includes our team, for example technologists, who help build a state of the art LMS, a faculty support team to help on-campus faculty familiarize themselves with the online platform and community managers like Jenn to work with on campus officials and support the online student experience. It is important to note that all academic and admissions related are outside our purview and those decisions are made by the university.
At the end of the day it’s about the student experience and we succeed if the student succeeds, so student retention and student outcomes are our metrics.
Also notable is that we partner with these schools for the long term and on an exclusive basis in each academic discipline, therefore USC’s social work program is our only social work partner and we want to continue its tradition of being the absolute best social work program available, so in that respect, we and USC share that mission.
What types of reports or assessments are available to track student engagement with the 2tor system?
We are able to identify at risk students earlier which is very helpful. Faculty also has access to activity reports where they can see exactly which students have visited which areas of content.
Community Management Questions by Jenn Pedde, MSW@USC Community Manager
Describe your collaboration with the student affairs / student services folks at USC.
I work directly with the student affairs staff at the USC School of Social Work and together we strategize to bring the USC Trojan experience to MSW@USC students in communities across the country. The school offers virtual students the opportunity to participate in the "Student Org" which is the main activities body to create student life and serves on campus and Virtual Academic Center students. MSW@USC students are elected to positions on the "VAC Caucus" which is advised by a faculty member and is charged with planning student activities such as Homecoming and lobby days. We act as facilitators for student elections, webinars, events, meetups, etc. with the university to ensure MSW@USC students know they're valued Trojans, who are connected to the school and have access to the great resources USC has to offer.
One great example of how we do this is the coordination we provided for the online participation for MSW@USC students at a live on-campus annual event, All School Day. (view the event here, http://msw.usc.edu/about/news/all-school-day/ ). Virtual students asked questions live online, viewed this event via webcast and participated in virtual break out groups to discuss topics of that were raised at this event. Some students that lived in the Southern California area went to campus to attend the event. It was a great experience all around for our students.
What has surprised you the most with the 2tor system and the students at USC?
What has surprised me most is how active and engaged our online students are despite not being near campus. They really want that human connection with the university and their classmates, and they're getting it. The technology has made it possible for face to face web-based study groups, learning on the go with our iPad and iPhone app, and live online classes where a professor can engage directly with students. You definitely can’t sleep in the back of the class at the Virtual Academic Center, everyone is on web cam! We also have small classes of no more that 15 people per class that helps in creating active discussions. MSW@USC students have also forged close friendships through the program with people that live in different states. They've created hundreds of community groups in the Virtual Academic Center, such as one for military spouses, LGBT advocacy, and parental support groups. Students are always posting and talking to each other in Facebook groups and pages, ready to lend a hand to help new students transition into life as a MSW@USC student or asking about different classes. On campus students at USC are also included in these public groups as well, so that helps create a great unified community feel.
What are some challenges/opportunities that have occurred with being a community manager for online learners?
Any great community manager knows that online relationships must be nurtured and taken offline in order to grow. Being that our MSW@USC students are spread throughout the country (and also doing their Field Practice experience in their local agencies) one of our biggest challenges has been creating that offline connection. As our student numbers grow (by the end of this year we'll have more than 700 students enrolled in 38 states and 4 countries), we’ll be expanding our activities that include local meet-ups, game watching activities at local USC alumni centers, and volunteering opportunities.
Answers by Paul Maiden, USC School of Social Work Vice Dean
What do you like about 2tor?
The technology used to developed the Learning Management System (LMS) which is the synchronous and asynchronous instructional platform used to deliver the courses in the VAC is outstanding. 2tor also understood and embraced our vision to become a national and eventually global school of social work.
Why did you choose to use 2tor instead of a different provider?
A large component of the MSW degree is the 1st and 2nd year field placement experience which is considered the signature pedagogy of social work education. In the virtual learning environment, this necessitated the development of a national model of field education which has not been done before. 2tor was the only potential partner that was willing to help us develop this national network of field placements for our VAC students. We also viewed the technology that 2tor proposed to develop the LMS as being superior to what the other provider was using.
What have been the key differences to providing online learning environments vs. in-person experiences? Is online really all that different?
From Annalisa Enrile, who teaches in the VAC ---
Key difference in the online versus in person environment is obviously you don't have the luxury of a physical connection to students like you do on an in person class but that's really the main thing. And that just means you have to work a little harder and be a little more creative to achieve that. For example, you open your virtual classroom space a little earlier so there is time for some small talk and rapport building just like in an in person class when people come early or stay late so they can talk with you. Also you make sure to build in some activities that keep your virtual class dynamic and interactive so they are not just watching your talking head in a screen. However there are other ways that I think a virtual platform is better such as for instance I find that my online students are better prepared- they have read the material and are ready to discuss it when we get to our live session because they have gone through all the asynchronous material.
There are not huge differences between the in person and the online classes and teaching, but I do think that there are vast opportunities in using the online platform that we are just beginning to utilize and the potential is great in terms of the levels of creativity we can reach.
What metrics are important to admins at USC?
The most important metrics to us are quality of instruction in the virtual learning environment, learning outcomes and retention and matriculation of students in the VAC.
I must admit that I was fairly skeptical of a for-profit company engaging in student affairs work, but the folks at 2tor appear to have a very unique, student-focused, student-friendly, and innovative business model.
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