This is another installment of an ELGL original content series titled “An MPA From My Apt.” by University of Southern California MPA distance graduate program student Josh Halladay. Halladay is sharing his experiences with a distance learning program in the hopes of providing perspective and support to other students who are pondering a degree using a distance or online program.
My professors’ focused my Public Administration and Society class on a three-dimensional approach to analyzing an organization: structure, craft, and culture. After finishing my first semester as a distance-learning MPA at USC, it seems appropriate that I put my studies, and $7,000 grand or so investment to use. My professors better be proud.
The structure of the online curriculum greatly differs from the traditional classroom based course. Every assignment description, activity, class discussion, and quiz/test took place online. The screenshot shows the layout of the website used to accommodate all this activity. Notably, there is a drawdown screen for each week of the semester with a checklist for students to keep track of each assignment. The overview link lists the learning objectives, reading, and due dates of each of the assignments for the week. It also features a video of the professor giving an overview of the week’s material.
My Economics class met weekly on Wednesday’s. The professor believed that the textbook was too dense not to be accompanied by an explanation from a human who understood that many of us do not have economics backgrounds. Using a program called Fuze, the professor hosted a session which all of us could join online via the same program (this is the same class mentioned as having technical difficulties in my last post). The major benefit of having class via Fuze is that the professor recorded each class session and posted it to the website the next day. Not only could we watch the lecture later in the week, but we could use these recordings to review the material come midterms and finals. The recordings eliminated the necessity for note taking. Group assignments for the Econ class took place using Google hangouts, a handy program that let us all see each other’s faces while simultaneously working on a document together.
The structure of the Public Administration and Society was purely based on independent initiative. There were six class meetings, but their only purpose was to facilitate question and answer sessions for the assignments worth the most point. The professor did not address the content of the course. To learn how he wanted us to format a memo, we read a 20 page essay on the subject that did not delve into specifics. Learning came solely through the readings and the assignments associated with them. Though, despite the lack of guidance, the course seemed to address many aspects, from how to analyze an organization, to concise communication of opinions.
How does one bestow information on a student without ever speaking with them? From my two classes, I have seen two approaches. The first – throw out the idea of never speaking to them as they will learn better if you can explain it to them in a way that a lay person can understand. My professor that took this approach is incredible. I found out from the great Chet Newland that this professor has been employed as an adjunct professor for 12 years, while the median tenure is one.
The other approach, which forced me to work harder (more real world learning I suppose) was to essentially provide a learning trail and let students follow it, picking up what they can along the way. I would compare it to the experience of an undergraduate student who skips class but does all the readings and assignments and manages to receive an A. Many professors, including some of my own, have allowed this type of learning to occur without objection. My professor encouraged it (even seeming brief in his emails if one reached out to him). He assigned the readings and put the descriptions of assignments in the links for each of the assignments. He also never made an appearance in any of the typed class discussion. Feedback was not his forte. The most individual feedback I received on an assignment was two complete sentences. He mostly typed an announcement to the class that spoke of trends he observed. And because we did not meet with him on a regular basis it was difficult to receive clarification.
I imagine I will have a stronger opinion on these two difference styles by the time I complete my program, but for the time being I think both have their costs and benefits.
From what I have heard, the culture of the distance-learning cohorts resembles those of traditional program. We all are in these together – clarifying details for one another, some proof reading of papers, offering help, and exchanging articles related to the material we are learning. The biggest difference is, because most of our conversations take place over facebook, we are not as close to one another. It’s nice to be able to pose a question or vent to my cohort and receive 16 responses, but it is nearly impossible to develop a strong relationship using this method. The closest I have come to hanging out with my classmates involved drinking a glass of wine on a Friday night while working on a group assignment. I benefit from having a fiancé who understands the full time worker, fulltime student experience as she is working towards her masters while teaching full time, but others my age look at me funny when I say I dream of being asleep by 10 on a Friday night (my first day of the between semesters break I got off work early and slept from 2:45pm to 7:00 the next morning, waking only to feed my dog).
However, despite the lack of bonding with peers/friends or meeting my future spouse, like the Wyatts, the cultural differences would not deter me if I were to consider choosing this program again.