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Web Extra: IT Conference Boosts Distance-Learning


IT Conference Boosts Distance-Learning

Harold Horell, Ph.D., gives a presentation about his online course.
Photo by Ken Levinson

By Janet Sassi

Faculty, students and even a dean came out on Tuesday, May 20 to promote the development of online instruction within a Jesuit pedagogical framework at Fordham.

That was the focus of the annual technology conference staged by the University’s Instructional Technology Academic Computing (ITAC) department.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to think creatively about how Jesuit education can be presented online,” Stephen Freeman, Ph.D., vice president of academic affairs and chief academic officer, told more than 200 members of the Fordham community.

“Distance learning is a venue consistent with the hallmarks of a Fordham education,” Freedman said. “Personal attention can be transferred to wherever our students are: in the classroom, on the street, in the dormitories … also to international students.

“We are here to provide the framework to assure that the technical tools are in place.”

Online course credit programs have drawn some skepticism nationwide among faculties for its “distanced” form of teaching. Freedman referred to the ITAC’s role in implementing the University’s long-range plans to offer an ambitious, pedagogically sound rollout of online curricula by 2016.

Fordham currently offers one online certificate through the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE) and one online master’s degree in adult education through the Graduate School of Education (GSE). More online degree offerings are expected this fall, as Fordham continues to work with the Jesuit Distance Education Network (JesuitNET), a Web-based clearinghouse for online courses offered by Jesuit universities.

“When we started this, no one knew anything about distance learning, but we were willing to jump in,” said Father Anthony Ciorra, dean of GRE. Father Ciorra, who teaches in the pilot online certificate program, said that he went into training for online instruction, “as a skeptic” but came out “a convert.”

“Distance learning itself is neither good or bad,” Father Ciorra said. “The key question is how do we make it excellent. It’s not about technology; it’s about teaching. The emphasis is not on the quantity of information but on the personal transformation of the student.”

Harold Horell, Ph.D., assistant professor of religious education, gave a presentation from his online class, “Moral Education and Development.”

Horell said there were four things he used to help “bring students into that online learning environment:” adequate tech support, a consistent look and feel to the pages, a learning space organized weekly and an integrated, holistic pedagogy.

Ciorra noted that the GRE had offered one “test” course in the classroom and online to gauge student reactions, saying that “our bias, of course, is that the classroom is the better way.” But the online students, Ciorra said, showed tremendous enthusiasm.

“They said it was the most transformative experience they had ever had in higher education,” Ciorra said.

In a panel discussion, Kathleen King, Ed.D., professor of education, said that today’s students are not passive, traditional learners who want to sit in a classroom, bounded by a time constraint, and listen. Today, she said, kids grow up developing themselves almost daily as hands-on “content creators” in a cyber world that “is not bound by time or space.”

Graduate student Mena Gawargi, who recently completed two of the GRE’s online courses, agreed.

“The old mode was that the professor was just carbon-copying his knowledge onto you,” Gawargi said. “But today kids want to express themselves. Online education is the first attempt to close the (generational) rift.

By the time the next generation of students gets to college, if [universities] can’t provide them with the technology they’re used to, they’re going to fall behind the Eight Ball.”

One down side to distance learning, according to Cindy Bonfini, chief information officer of JesuitNET, is its dropout rate, which is higher than on-site education. Bonfini noted, however, that JesuitNET’s online rates of retention were between 82 percent and 90 percent—much higher than the national average.

Part of that success story, she said, has to do with also linking up online students to their universities’ academic advising, ministering, library and enrollment services.

“Fordham has a good chance of making one of the best online experiences in the nation, and abroad, right here,” Bonfini said.

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