Career Catalyst: Online Learning at IC

An online learning initiative geared toward rising professionals is attracting alumni as well as new students from around the world.  by Gary E. Frank

Rob Gearhart ’82, M.S. ’85, is clearly fond of his alma mater: twice since his graduation he has come back to work at Ithaca College. Most recently he became the College’s first director of online learning and certificate and professional programs. In that role he is helping to revolutionize the way the College teaches while attracting a whole new kind of learner.

In partnership with Diane Gayeski ’74, professor and associate dean of academic initiatives in the Park School, and supported by graduate studies dean Greg Woodward, Gearhart launched the College’s first professional certificate online programs this past January, in strategic communications management and performance improvement management. Offered in partnership with the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and the International Society for Performance Improvement, the non-credit professional certificate programs are aimed at a new audience for Ithaca: people who are in their first or second assignments as managers.

“I’m thrilled to be here to help the College to develop online course material,” says Gearhart. “We think offering online learning is a great way to meet the needs of people looking for professional development opportunities.”

After earning his master’s degree in educational communications, Gearhart taught 12 undergraduate and graduate courses in the Park School. In 1996 he moved across town to Cornell University, where he got  in on the ground floor of eCornell, the university’s innovative online professional and executive development program. Last year he returned to his South Hill alma mater. Now he is using some of what he learned in developing eCornell to create a slate of innovative online offerings at Ithaca College.

Across the country, online learning is growing rapidly in its acceptance by academic communities as well as in the variety and number of courses being offered. According to a 2006 report of the Sloan Consortium, an association of educational organizations and institutions committed to encouraging quality online education, more than 3.2 million students were enrolled in at least one online course during the fall 2005 semester, an increase of more than 800,000 students in just one year. While online learners tend to be undergraduates, the Sloan study reported that online education increasingly appeals to learners who are already well into their professional careers—learners like those IC is attracting.

Gayeski, the coordinator and primary instructor of this first program, is excited to be working with this student population. “The program assumes they already know the basis of their professional practices but are now moving into positions where they have to manage people and a budget,” she says. “They have a seat at the table and work with other executives and directors. They have to be able to represent their organizations.”

Gearhart and Gayeski determined that for pedagogical soundness, the target class size would be 15 to 20 students, which would allow for a wide variety of viewpoints in class discussion, but not an overwhelming number of postings for each participant to read, digest, and respond to. Since the courses were launched, nearly every class has had the maximum (20) number of students; among them have been professionals from Canada, Britain, and Nigeria, as well as from all over the United States. To receive credit for this program (1 CEU, or continuing education unit, is given for each course), students must participate in online discussions, finish course assignments or projects, and provide a thoughtful critique to at least one other student’s project. Successfully completing four of the (so far) seven courses offered earns the student a certificate of completion.

In the strategic communications management and performance improvement management programs, each class lasts two weeks and requires a commitment of about 10 hours. The courses use an asynchronous online format, in which students do not all have to be online simultaneously with each other or the instructor.

“This structure supports good learning,” “says Gearhart. “Within it there’s flexibility, because you get to log in when it best suits your schedule.”

“I loved the flexibility [this format] offered, along with the short length of the course,” says Betsy Edson ’94, a systems analyst for CCG Systems in Norfolk, Virginia, who took four classes between January and May to earn a professional certificate in performance improvement management. “It really did allow me to work at my own pace.” Edson, who had taken online courses before, was very pleased with the IC offerings. “[Ithaca] planned very well and provided great opportunities to network with others,” she says. Edson credits Gayeski’s feedback for making the courses engaging: “She was very good at reading and responding to everyone’s comments and encouraging all the students to participate in online discussions with each other.”

Colleen Scott, a management consultant from Alberta, Canada, agrees. “I thought I would feel disconnected, but I truly didn’t,” she says. “The frequency and volume of communication gave a very inclusive feeling. It’s amazing how each participant’s ‘virtual voice’ came through loud and clear. Diane was very responsive to our questions and input, which added to the feeling of being connected.”

Scott became the initiative’s first graduate in June, earning a certificate in strategic communications management. She had first learned about the program as a member of the IABC. “I am always looking for opportunities to continue my education,” she says, “and this program presented a unique chance to learn with—and from—students from around the world.” The fact that she wouldn’t have to travel to participate was also attractive. “My experience with online education had been limited to online components of regular classroom courses,” Scott says. “Those were far less interactive and productive than this, and certainly less international. I really enjoyed the exchanges and collaborations that took place in these modules.”

Course readings are taken from professional journals and academic texts. The asynchronous format has benefits that go beyond convenience, says Gayeski, by allowing students to put “a lot more time” into their responses to course materials, questions, and discussions. “The students’ answers are often quite lengthy; many are backed up with research and links to other materials; and everybody answers questions, not just a few people,” she points out. “And I can provide a lot more individual feedback and respond to everybody in a much more detailed fashion.”

Gayeski sees her role as an “agent provocateur” to stimulate discussion. She credits the students for helping to create a rich collaboration. “What’s really cool about this,” she says, “is that we give assignments that relate to the students’ actual current work. Often they’re tackling a real-life problem or project, and relating the course to it. They’re very open about doing that.”

“Participating in these courses helped me immediately to be more effective in my job,” says Adrienne Alesandro, a manager of corporate internal communications at the Mountain View, California, headquarters of Intuit, a software firm. “The corporate internal communications function is relatively new for my company, so we’re doing a lot of foundation building. The readings and best-practice sharing have augmented my experience and will continue to be great points of reference for me. I liked the variety of readings; some practical, others theoretical, they all provided new insights.”

An unexpected, but welcome, measure of the initiative’s success is that many students keep signing up for more courses. “People are now coming back,” Gayeski says, “and sharing in the online discussions what they’ve learned in previous courses and how it has helped them.”

Scott is among those interested in pursuing more classes in her discipline. “I see that new components are being added to the program I took,” she says, “and I am considering registering for more, even though I’ve already received the certificate. It’s a great way to continue down my road of learning.”

As of mid-August, the two programs had 177 registrations, with another 45 registrations for upcoming sessions. Even with the initial popularity of the online professional development programs, Gearhart says there might be more growth potential for “blended” courses that combine online content with some face-to-face instruction. While the current online offerings are non-credit earning, Gearhart says the professional development programs might eventually lead to the College’s offering online graduate degrees.

“There is a spectrum of possibilities,” he says. “Someone might be interested in a particular set of courses for their particular professional development, but they don’t want to commit to a 30-credit master’s program. Should they change their mind later, these courses could be used for credit towards a graduate degree.”

The new synergies being created among the College’s graduate, professional development, and continuing education programs by developing all this online content has led to the merging of these programs into a single unit for graduate and professional studies.

“You might note that the acronym for graduate and professional studies is GPS, as in global positioning system,” Gearhart says. “That’s fortuitous, because it’s a great way for us to help people navigate the next step in their careers.”