by Prof. Mark Werwath
Online education is a popular subject right now, so I thought it particularly relevant to discuss the history and current direction of the MEM Program’s efforts at going digital.
As you may know, Northwestern’s MEM Program is one of the oldest professional Masters programs in the McCormick School of Engineering and has a 30+ year history of reaching students from all over Chicagoland. Traditionally, the program’s emphasis has always been on a face-to-face educational model that connects students with their peers and with faculty in a way that has been demonstrated as helping to build strong social networks. However, at the same time, the MEM Program has acknowledged that some students in the far suburbs have a great deal of difficulty getting to weeknight classes on time.
Thus, in an effort to mitigate students’ scheduling difficulties, the MEM Program experimented with simulcast teaching by linking a teaching location in Evanston with a location in Schaumburg using dedicated video and audio links. Unfortunately, the technology at the time was not very stable, and student complaints ultimately led to scheduling students at either Schaumburg or Evanston with a live instructor in each site. This was some 15 years ago.
Since that time, the location of the westernmost teaching site has shifted from Motorola’s campus to the Harper College site and finally to the Bensenville site. None of these subsequent teaching sites has ever attempted to set up an online system like the video linkages that had been tested in the past, but instead relied on face-to-face teaching. Utilizing these academic outposts helped, but still ended up missing the mark: the course content was the same, but students still lacked the unique experience of connecting with peers on campus.
At present, with most of the teaching sites in the western suburbs being exhausted, classes are offered on Saturday mornings in a rotation so that a variety of courses are available. This preserves the rich-face to-face delivery with convenience for students who travel far to attend our courses. In addition, we are now experimenting with streaming and online content.
If this face-to-face educational model is so important, you may ask, then why are we giving digital distribution methods another chance? Well, we in the MEM Program believe that some content is amenable to online delivery and have thus invested in streaming certain courses over the internet, not as the primary means of instruction but as a backup for students who are unable to attend, be they trapped by job commitments, weather or traffic impediments, or etc. In conjunction with this initiative, each faculty member that allows streaming (over Adobe Connect) has agreed to allow at least one unexcused absence from class per quarter, although grading and attendance policies will vary from one teacher to another.
Where is this online education initiative heading and what does it mean for the future of the MEM Program? It is hard to tell at the moment. Looking at the history of the MEM Program, our legacy is one of experimentation and adaptation to the new technologies. That said, we will continue to experiment and see what content works in an online environment and what doesn’t.
What do you think of the streaming technology available? Do you find real-time lecture capture on Adobe Connect valuable or not? Your feedback is ultimately the most important measurement we have, so feel free to comment on your experiences!