Going back to study…online

This is the first of a number of posts Matt intends (not promises) to post on his experiences of going back to study online with Penn State University. While he has a host of worries about studying again, his biggest fear is that he’s going to be an emabarrassingly bad student and won’t practice what he preaches in his day job to university students – manage your time well and give yourself every opportunity to succeed.  

By Matthew Cowan – LSU

A conversation last year with David, our previous manager at the LSU, motivated me to seriously start thinking about where my career was heading. Our conversation hadn’t come about because of my poor work performance or anything, rather he was talking about the leadership and management course at Harvard he was about to take. He told me he had tossed up between two courses – one, the Harvard course which he eventually took, and two, an online institutional research course at Penn State University.

The institutional research course interested me. I’d been looking to do further studies as I was toying with a career change. I’d even recently started another masters degree in a field I wasn’t overly familiar with but had a keen interest in – international and community development. That course was fully online too. Living in Vietnam doesn’t really give you much of a choice if you wish to further your studies. In this case it was with an Australian university but once I’d started I knew it was going to be a struggle. One, because I needed to get my head around finance, and two, the course wasn’t sufficiently supported by online courseware that promotes engagement. As an example, a week or so before the course start date, I received two substantially sized books of photocopied journal articles in the mail. The online component was to comment on these readings on the course discussion board each week culminating in a supposedly well-informed creation of some kind of community development micro-finance proposal thingy. Anyway, you guessed it – I quit.

Institutional researchers provide quantitative and qualitative information and analysis services that support things like academic planning, decision making, accreditation, and assessment for academic institutions. But the cool thing is that the knowledge and expertise gained isn’t limited to educational institutions only. This was a big drawcard for me given that I had already toyed with moving away from the education field and that I may consider moving on again in the future.

I’ve never undertaken any formal study or training in research methods mostly because I’ve never seen myself as a researcher and had very little interest in research. And with our very own in-house researcher Dr Wei Wei, the Unit had always thrown any research possibilities across the office in Wei’s direction who, being the archetypical researcher that he is, duly gobbled them up.

But with so much change underway internally and externally of the LSU, and with the realisation that Wei wasn’t going to be here forever, I thought it imperative that someone in the office skill up to fill the void if and when Wei departs. This motivated me to do something about it. As a result, this week was my first week of class in the Graduate Certificate of Institutional Research at Penn State.

Surprisingly, some may say ironically, the application process for gaining entry into this online course is far from techie or innovative as one may have thought. Penn State requested that most of the application forms be downloaded and printed out then sent as hard copies in the mail to the States. Kiss goodbye to original academic transcripts. They don’t appear to be into scanning things too much or happy with digital forms. The other tricky thing is that because Penn State has such a large student population (approx.100,000), the Graduate Centre that I dealt with clearly had trouble coping with the sheer volume of applications and enrolments. I rarely communicated with the same admin officer twice which meant I had to explain my situation repeatedly, and quite often they wanted me to call them rather than email, which is not only expensive, but inconveniencing given time differences, tiring and frustrating. Looking back, this period was quite off-putting and more than once I questioned whether I really wanted to go through with it.

On top of that, once my application had been accepted, I was trying to enrol over the Christmas/New Year period. At one stage I became so frustrated with the experience that I resorted to Twitter asking if anyone had had such complications. Within two days Penn State had tweeted back saying they were on my case. Both parties were to blame to some extent in this, but the moral of the story is that it could take anywhere between 3-6 months to get started on your course if you were to experience the same hiccups as me.

This week has been great however. I have access to everything online. The course management system used is called Angel and I would say it trumps Blackboard but only just. One thing I’ve found out though with the time difference (12 hours) is that each Saturday afternoon my time, which is 4am Pennsylvania time, Angel undergoes ‘routine maintenance’. This could prove to be a pain if I need to get hold of some urgent course info in the future.

The other thing they set me up with was a Yammer account. It has an interface similar to that of Facebook and is really simple to use. Plus, there’s an app for it so I can check it everywhere I go with my smartphone. Yammer is used for our course discussions and I can already see how useful it might be for our office. And, it’s a fantastic way to network. Although I’m not really a networker, Yammer is a great way to meet likeminded people studying the course without revealing too much about yourself to anyone.

One last thing to mention but arguably the most important is the way lectures are delivered. These are done through Adobe Connect and are called live classroom sessions. I’d never used Adobe Connect before but it worked well for my first live session recording. I was unable to attend the first one in real time, so I watched the recording of it a couple of days later. For anyone who’s used Echo360 it’s similar to that where you have streaming of the presenter, in my case two presenters, with a slideshow presentation. I still haven’t worked out how to enlarge the video screens yet – currently they’re a bit too small for me. The other thing is that when you watch a recorded classroom session and then pause it, the video is inclined to go back to the very beginning when you click on play again and doesn’t respond well to toggling back to where you had paused.

Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to participating in my first live session on the 30th of January to see how user-friendly Adobe Connect is. So far the course co-ordinator has been awesome in giving me every opportunity to participate in these sessions, which means a lot when being a part of an online community can be potentially isolating and lonely. In this case, it’s nice to know that someone is keeping an eye on my online presence, which is contrary to how I usually feel. The scheduled live classroom sessions start at 8am my time which is not suitable for me, but my co-ordinator has arranged for them to take place an hour earlier so that I can participate before I head off to work. They’re only an hour long so it shouldn’t be too much for me to handle at the start of my day. Let’s wait and see.

Wish me luck!

My evaluation of Penn State and my course so far:

Hits: Well organised lecturers; Yammer; live classroom sessions; well organised syllabus; flexibility of delivery; Angel course management system looks better than Blackboard; networking opportunities; course looks very practical

Misses: Archaic application & enrolment processes; time differences; Penn State online doesn’t have an app (as far as I know); Webmail is ugly and clunky (not Google); cost over $USD2,000 per course

One response to “Going back to study…online”

  1. Linh says :

    Good luck, Matt. I started my online Master about 2 years ago. Almost done now, but it was in fact a challenge. You mentioned all the technical connections you will need to make it effective, but I found the lack of face to face interactions (yes, even in this day and age) was a bit difficult for motivation. I have yet to fully grasp the concept of on-line communities.

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