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As commencement nears, USC celebrates success of online MAT@USC program

As Commencement Nears, USC Celebrates Success of Online MAT@USC Program
A Master of Arts in Teaching degree offered completely online is unique among highly ranked graduate schools of education.

Enrollment in the online offspring of the USC Master of Arts in Teaching – MAT@USC – has jumped more than tenfold since it kicked off two years ago.

About 1,500 current and aspiring teachers are now earning their degrees through MAT@USC – more than the education schools at Stanford (415) and Harvard (972) universities combined.

“The only way to have a true impact on urban and high-need schools is to prepare highly qualified teachers in larger numbers than ever before,” said USC Rossier School of Education dean Karen Symms Gallagher. “With an entire generation of teachers retiring, the MAT@USC is filling that need.”

MAT@USC’s boom in what was once the domain of the for-profit institution mirrors a nationwide desire for high-quality education delivered online.

The 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning showed online enrollment jumped by almost 1 million students from a year earlier – the largest ever year-to-year increase.

A Master of Arts in Teaching degree offered completely online is unique among highly ranked graduate schools of education. USC Rossier was ranked No. 14 in that category by U.S. News & World Report this year.

In addition to all-online classes, MAT@USC students are involved in classroom fieldwork in their neighborhood schools from the start. And despite the tough economic times, MAT@USC graduates are finding jobs. Among the first cohort of students who began in June 2009, 83 percent report being employed in an education-related field.

High-quality Teacher Education

The MAT@USC classroom interface resembles a mashup of interactive technologies such as Skype, Facebook and instant messaging.

Students joke that it even looks a bit like intro credits from The Brady Bunch, with a grid of boxes containing the live video feeds of each student. (Classes are capped at 12 to ensure that students can see one another on their computer screens.)

Professors can design their online classroom to include slideshows and course syllabi. They also can send students into smaller discussion groups.

Students press a button to virtually “raise their hand,” and they can watch videos of past class sessions and swap or sell textbooks to other MAT@USC students.

2tor Inc., the company formed by Princeton Review founder John Katzman, provides the program’s technology and administrative infrastructure.

“The technology behind the program has been designed from the ground up to provide some important parts of an on-campus experience,” Katzman said. “We worked with our partners at USC Rossier to examine what students encounter on campus and in class, and designed ways to maximize interaction among faculty and students.”

2tor recently helped launch MAT@USC applications for the iPhone and iPad so students can access their coursework and interact with fellow students and faculty remotely on their Apple mobile devices.

Pajama U?

The misnomer that most online programs are less rigorous than their brick-and-mortar counterparts is largely disappearing, said John Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit group that seeks to integrate online learning into the mainstream of higher education.

A recent survey by California State University researchers even showed employers found online teacher preparation graduates more capable – especially in teaching math, using technology and teaching special learners in regular classrooms – than their colleagues who earned degrees from on-campus programs.

But Bourne said what’s harder to shake is the misconception that online learning is about taking “canned modules” that lack dynamic interaction between students and their professors.

“For a great majority of programs, it’s like going to class in your typical schools,” Bourne said.

USC clinical education professor Margo Pensavalle was a veteran of USC’s on-campus MAT program when she took her classes online with MAT@USC. Pensavalle learned she has to be just as prepared – perhaps more – when teaching from her office chair as in front of a classroom.

“It’s real-time, it’s interactive and it has the ability to be spontaneous,” Pensavalle said. “A pregnant pause online, I think, is a little more daunting than it is in the classroom. You’re just really conscious of giving your students everything you possibly can.”

A ‘Typical’ Classroom, Under the Stars

Soon-to-be MAT@USC graduate Heather Morgan’s classroom was an Army base in rural Louisiana.

Sitting on the hood of her Humvee after a nighttime training mission, the Army officer dialed into class by phone and talked with professors and classmates about the value of a parent’s involvement in the classroom.

Morgan followed the lectures, chatted and shared links instantaneously with other students, organized online study sessions and e-mailed group papers to colleagues for feedback.

She spent her 90-minute lunch breaks in a sophomore English class several days each week, oftentimes still in her Army uniform, filming her lessons and getting weekly feedback from her USC professor in Los Angeles.

“The only thing I’ve known is the Army,” Morgan said. “[MAT@USC] fueled and validated the desire I’ve had for a long time to teach. I want to be a facilitator of student thinking and, in some instances, a co-learner.”

Teaching the Teachers

Teacher turnover will likely mean the United States must recruit 2.2 million new teachers in the next decade, and the MAT@USC program trains teachers in classrooms across America where they live and likely will seek jobs.

The program’s average student is three to four years older than the typical graduate student on the university’s campus. Most have jobs or are full-time parents. Many are looking for a change in career.

Erin Moore, 35, earned her bachelor’s degree from Pepperdine University with plans to become a teacher.

Life took her in another direction – to a small town in Kansas, where she became a full-time mother of three children, ages 7 to 18.

Thirteen years after she was an undergraduate, Moore keeps a dizzying schedule.

After getting up at 5:30 a.m. to get her children ready for school, Moore goes to her neighborhood elementary school for a full day of observing and helping in the classroom – a practice MAT@USC students start from Day 1.

Moore switches on her Webcam three nights per week for her evening MAT@USC classes. Moore said her USC professors are “very understanding” if one of her children’s faces occasionally pops onto the screen.

“I always say ‘I’m a mom first.’ But teaching is still something that is very dear to me,” Moore said. “Being able to do all of this online is perfect for me. I can still be home with my kids. I don’t have to be gone at night. I’m getting to do what I love to do, which is working with kids.”

Moore and Morgan will join more than 300 MAT@USC classmates in Los Angeles in May, where they will receive their diplomas at the university’s commencement ceremony.

MAT@USC is among several online master’s degrees offered by USC, including programs through the USC School of Social Work and the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development.

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