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How Much Does Online Education Matter for Drexel? A Q&A With Susan Aldridge

Susan Aldridge

May 7, 2014

Susan Aldridge is used to big jobs. Before coming to Drexel, she was the leader of the largest public university in the United States, thanks to a huge virtual campus. And she wrote the book on online education — or at least she was commissioned to co-author a book on the subject, and it comes out this spring.

So Aldridge was a natural choice to lead the big move in store for online education at Drexel. Since 1996, when it became a pioneer in online higher education, Drexel University Online has been a separate subsidiary of the University. But Aldridge, a veteran educator and distance-learning expert, is leading a transition that will make it a part of the larger Drexel structure, signifying the importance of online learning to the University’s future.

With about six months under her belt since arriving at Drexel in October, Aldridge sat down with DrexelNow to discuss the changing face of online learning at Drexel and around the world, the free online courses with huge enrollments that have grabbed headlines the past few years, and the expertise she brings to the job.

What did you do before you came to Drexel?

Like most higher education administrators, I began my career in the classroom, teaching management courses to graduate students at the National University of Singapore. From there, I went on to join the leadership team at Troy University in Alabama, where I served as vice chancellor of the global campus. That meant overseeing the university’s academic programs in 17 states and 14 countries, including an e-campus with some 9,000 non-traditional students.

So moving on to become the sixth president of the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) was really a natural step in my career evolution, given its extensive global and virtual campus. And after six years there, I am proud to say that it had grown to become the largest public university in the country, with 95,000 students worldwide.

After leaving UMUC and before joining the Drexel University team, I served as senior fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, where I was commissioned to co-author a book, “Wired for Success,” which is scheduled to hit the shelves in the spring.

So what exactly does your job entail here at Drexel?

My actual title is president of Drexel University Online and senior vice president for online learning. I was hired to build a new administrative division here at the university, which will essentially accomplish two strategic objectives: provide comprehensive services for Drexel’s many online students, while at the same time pursuing innovative approaches to online curricula, teaching and student assessment.

All in all, the idea is not only to ensure the quality of our virtual offerings by using high-impact instructional practices and learning technologies, but also to promote Drexel’s e-campus as a critical component of the University’s overall growth and development strategy. And from what I can see, there is plenty of enthusiasm for both those goals among administrators, faculty and students here. Drexel is moving in some exciting new directions when it comes to technology-enhanced instruction, grounded in solid research and evaluation.

You have nearly 20 years of experience in adult-focused education and distance learning. What major changes have you seen over the years?

For one thing, e-learning has definitely moved into the mainstream of U.S. higher education. In fact, as of this past year, there are more than seven million college students taking at least one online course. What’s more, the latest survey from the highly regarded Sloan Consortium reported that nearly three-quarters of the academic leaders polled rated online learning outcomes as the same or even superior to those in the face-to-face classroom.

Even employers are coming around. Just recently, Drexel University Online launched a really wonderful infographic that explains how most employers do, in fact, equate online with face-to-face education when the degree-granting institution is both academically reputable and regionally accredited. They are even more favorable when the university in question has a traditional brick-and-mortar campus. Needless to say, a Drexel online degree wins on all three counts.

There is also no doubt that technology has in many ways democratized higher education, by paving the way for affordable access, anytime and anywhere. In other words, it has been a great equalizer for working men and women, who to get ahead professionally must balance both the cost and the demands of college with work and family responsibilities.

But equally impressive, interactive technology has enabled us to greatly improve upon the traditional face-to-face, “talk-and-test” learning experience. For example, we can customize the online learning environment to a degree we have never achieved in the traditional classroom, which makes it easier for us to connect the dots between what our students know, what they need to learn and how they need to learn it.

On top of that, quality online education definitely moves the needle from passive teaching to active and authentic learning, by allowing us to create the hands-on, sensory-rich learning experiences our students need to become effective 21st-century professionals. A perfect example of that can be found among our online nursing programs here at Drexel, where students are using patient avatars to sharpen their life-saving skills from a distance, experiencing any number of high-risk clinical encounters.

A big subject in the news over the last few years has been massive open online courses, or MOOCs, the free college classes that enroll as many as 100,000 students. What’s the real significance of MOOCs for the world of online education?

While there are certainly effective MOOCs out there, the vast majority of them are still greatly missing the mark. Online education has been around for more than two decades now. In fact, Drexel is considered one of the pioneers in this field, having launched its virtual campus in 1996. And since then, distance learning practitioners have conducted copious research that demonstrates the many positive academic benefits of a good online learning experience.

But like any other effective teaching methodology, it relies on tremendous interactivity. That has, for the most part, been neglected in most of the MOOCs I have seen. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how a course with 100,000 enrollments and broadcast lectures could ever achieve the same outcomes as one with 25 or 30 students and a highly engaged instructor. Less than 10 percent of people who register for these MOOC courses ever finish them.

That’s not to say, however, that thoughtfully conceived and well-designed MOOCs can’t play an important role in advancing the online education mission and agenda, particularly when it comes to the capacity these courses provide for experimentation.

You started on the job in October. How much headway have you made since then?

We’re moving at a fast pace. I love that about Drexel. We’re assessing the online student support systems and the courses that are being conducted online, and we’re looking for opportunities for new degree programs that we can launch online or in a hybrid format. We’re promoting our faculty and staff who are using technology to enhance learning, and we’re encouraging more faculty research in this area. So it’s an exciting time for us.

What opportunities could online education present for Drexel?

What we have found with online learning is that students tend to be, for the most part, in their 30s or 40s. They’re coming back to school to obtain additional degrees to help them compete in the job market — to go from a registered nurse degree to a bachelor of science in nursing, for example.

So for a university like Drexel, online learning is an opportunity to expand the number of students that we’re able to serve. We’re relatively landlocked here in Philadelphia, but this gives us the opportunity to serve students all across the country. And it creates opportunities for working professionals to still obtain a Drexel degree.

And in addition to expanding the number of students we’re going to be able to serve, we’re also looking at ways to expand hybrid courses, which combine face-to-face and online experiences. Eventually, we want students on our campuses to be able to take online, hybrid and face-to-face courses as they desire. Students are really demanding more technological enhancements in their courses and in their learning.

What’s the benefit of a hybrid course?

You might have some lecture and discussion time in class with the professor, along with very structured assignments in an online environment. For example, some courses might have simulations that the students can practice on. Or students can connect with professionals in their field from around the world. These days, you can do everything from dissecting a frog to building a rocket online.

Students today bring an average of seven technological devices with them to campus. So if we’re going to help students learn in the way they want to learn, we need to be able to use technology, because they’ve lived with technology most of their lives.

The other thing is that online and hybrid learning helps students prepare for the work environment they’ll be entering. Employers tell us they want students who know how to conduct research online, know how to differentiate quality data from less reputable data, collaborate across cultures online and through videoconferencing and use the technology available in their field of expertise.

Just how important is online education to Drexel’s future?

For Drexel to grow in the future, we really need to expand online opportunities. There are many people who would love to attend the University but can’t leave their job or their family in order to come to campus and take courses in a traditional way.

Also, the length of time that knowledge stays current in many fields is getting shorter all the time. So companies need to send their professional employees back to school to upgrade their skillsets and their knowledge. Given the corporate relationships Drexel has built through its co-op program, we could be a resource for those companies. I see a very bright future for Drexel to be the university of choice for people who want to go back to school. Drexel has this rich history of being innovative and technologically advanced, so the continued growth of online learning and technology-mediated education is a natural evolution.

Why is it important that online learning no longer be assigned to a separate subsidiary of the University?

Online learning and technology-enhanced learning are vital components of the future growth strategy for Drexel, so it’s important that we be seen as a part of the University, not as a separate entity. And in our new role, we’re partners with the deans and faculty and staff, supporting them and the students to make sure that we have all the support systems they need to be successful.

Personally, what’s your technological lifestyle like? How plugged-in are you?

I’m never unplugged. My iPad and computer and iPhone, they’re pinging night and day. But I like that. The students that are coming to us today are the same way, I think. They’re so technologically advanced that we’re all going to have to work hard to keep up with them.