Internationalization & online education: an interview with Rebecca Clothey Ph.D., Drexel University Professor of Education

Rebecca Clothey is a professor of Comparative Education at Drexel University, School of Education and former Director of the M.S. in Higher Education and M.S. in Global and International Education, two graduate programs that are offered online. Her research interests include international higher education policy, equity and access. She was formerly also the Director of Curriculum Development for CET Academic Programs based at Capital Normal University in Beijing, China. CET is a study abroad organization that offers international programs for American undergraduate and graduate students in Europe and Asia. Dr. Clothey was selected by the U.S. State Department to conduct elections training for the OSCE Mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina and has been awarded two Fulbright Fellowships to China and Uzbekistan. She has a Ph.D. in Administrative and Policy Studies from the University of Pittsburgh, School of Education. She was interviewed by David Joiner.

Can you start by giving me a quick overview of online education?

With over 3.9 million students in online programs in the U.S. alone, online students tend to be non-traditional, often times juggling children, full-time jobs and other multiple responsibilities. Online education is one strategy that universities turn to in order to attract this population not able to enroll and attend classes more typically associated with our understanding of campus life, due to various constraints.

From what I have heard, there has been recent growth in online learning internationally, in particular China.

Asia currently has the largest number of online students, with 70 open universities. One of the ways that we see China using online learning is as a way of sharing resources between universities. For example, China’s government gives grants to professors at various universities to help them improve their undergraduate teaching materials and then put them online. The idea is that less prestigious institutions can benefit from the country’s best instructors and improve their own courses. Chinese universities now offer more than 10,000 courses online. In the majority of cases, these courses attract non-traditional students who did not go through the Gaokao systems and therefore in many ways, online education presents an opportunity for students that may have fallen through the cracks.

There are also a growing number of examples of international universities developing online education offerings in collaboration with universities in China. The majority of these have been in the English language training area; for example the Sino-UK e-Learning Program was a cooperative effort between the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Chinese Ministry of Education to promote innovation in e-learning. On another note, it is also interesting that we are seeing more U.S. students living overseas enrolling in U.S. online programs.

Blended programs are a great example of how U.S. universities are using technology as part of their internationalization strategy. A good example is a University of Chicago Booth School of Business Executive MBA program, where the students meet once a month face-to-face in Hong Kong, London or Chicago. In fact, many of the students are from mainland China, but they meet in Hong Kong because of the excellent regional transportation options. What makes this program work well is how in-person interaction is designed to supplement the work that students do online.

Dr. Rebecca Clothey

If you think about one of the big trends globally, which is an interest in liberal arts education, what is the online or technology piece bringing to the discussion?

As you are probably aware, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been one of the most talked about trends in this area, but the question has really become how to pay for MOOCs. If the development of these courses is not free, then how do universities that offer them cover their costs? Some universities are looking at partnerships with organizations, where the university will recoup a portion of the cost of the MOOC, others are breaking up degrees into smaller packages, and still others, like Georgia State University are testing smaller MOOCs that feel much more similar to in-person instruction. However, it seems that the experience of most institutions has been limited to building name recognition, by showcasing their knowledgeable and engaging faculty. MIT for example, an early pioneer, has really benefited from the global awareness of MOOCs.

You have a lot of experience in more traditional forms of internationalization, such as your work with CET on study abroad. What is it about technology that is really driving the international agenda? How are some of the more forward-looking universities fitting these pieces together?

Great question. At Drexel, we have a grant specifically encouraging international collaboration, and the premise of it is that your class is co-taught with a faculty member at another international university. Some faculty members have approached the challenge in a synchronous way, where the class here meets at 8:00am and the one in China at 8:00pm (of course the students have to be fine with that), but in Latin America the time difference is only an hour or two. Others have used concepts of group work, where teams of students from both countries will collaborate using both synchronous and asynchronous tools.

Online conferences are growing in popularity. Most people are familiar with the webinar format, where you have one person or a panel presenting on a topic and students can log in. Online conferences are similar, but they happen over a longer period of time, some for 24 hours, so you can, if you like, get up and attend a panel discussion at 2:00am. Most of these conferences are recorded and then posted online, often with tools that allow ongoing interaction.

We have also been thinking about how we might have some of our online Master’s degree students presenting their capstone work to the general public. Prospective students could then be invited to these spaces and have an opportunity to get a better feel about the type of work they would be doing with us.

Feature image credit: Creative Commons. © 2014 Jens Schott Knudsen | | Twitter:@jensschott


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