By Dian Schaffhauser
A degree program at Georgetown University has evolved from being completely online to bringing together students virtually and in-person. Courses for the Master of Science in Finance at the McDonough School of Business originally took place in a small studio. Nobody was present other than a faculty member, a producer and a camera. Students tuned into the course from their various remote outposts, and the professor could interact with them through a large monitor.
"It was basically a glorified closet with a bunch of technology," recalled Luke Weichbrod, associate director of the program. "It worked because the professor was standing about three feet from the monitor so he could see all the students and get the expressions on their face and read their body language."
When the class was over, however, faculty members began noticing their "remote" students hanging out and participating in their courses from the hallways of the business school building. That's when the program decided to transform into a blended offering, but with a twist. Whereas most blended programs start out as face-to-face and gradually add online components, this one went the other direction.
Now students can attend in person or log in and appear as one face among many on a giant monitor set up in the back row of a traditional classroom. To accommodate busy student schedules, the same 90-minute class is offered two nights in a row, Wednesday and Thursday. Students can attend either.
And while the sessions are recorded for students to look at afterwards, "It's most definitely a live class, where everybody is participating in real time in different time zones throughout the country," Weichbrod emphasized.
To bring both groups of students together, Georgetown uses a "very customized version" of Adobe Connect.
If they're participating online, students call into the course using an Adobe Connect bridge, typically, said Weichbrod, from their cell phones. They also use the webcams built into their laptops or some other webcam source to display their own live images. When an online person wants to contribute to the discussion, he or she raises a hand or pushes a button to display a hand icon.
The students only see the professor and his or her presentation or virtual whiteboard. If the professor calls on a student, the screen is split to show both the instructor and that student.
The new approach has been in place since last fall, and it's used in all nine of the program's courses.
Weichbrod noted that at the beginning of the blended delivery, the faculty were so used to interacting with the virtual students that it was "hard" for them "to engage with the present students." They're "learning on the job," he added. "It's a balancing act that they're working through right now."
But students seem to appreciate the blend. "Many of our students, when they think of an online program, they think of it as a relationship between themselves, their computer and maybe their professor too," Weichbrod observed. "But what we've designed is a way for the students to really fully interact with their classmates, just as if they were on campus. It's really nothing we've seen anywhere else."