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USC looks to the future of online education

One example of USC's efforts to transform learning through technology is iPodia Alliance, a program that uses high-bandwidth connectivity and tele-presence technology to connect students with classmates across the globe.

Some Trojans may know of a Slingbox as the device that can transport video of USC sports to cities around the world.

But Thomas Lee, associate professor of ophthalmology and pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, saw a revolutionary use for the ubiquitous device.

With his $200 investment at an electronics store, Lee kick-started a telemedicine and distance-learning portal that trained physicians in Armenia to treat a disease that once caused irreversible blindness for one in five babies in neonatal intensive care units there.

Lee joined more than 100 other USC faculty and administrators Jan. 25-26 at the annual Provost/Academic Senate Retreat. This year’s event examined how technology has and will continue to transform learning at USC, both in the classroom and through online learning programs.

Dozens of speakers shared their technology-enhanced learning breakthroughs — large and small — with colleagues to inspire others to follow their example in changing how USC professors teach and students learn.

“We are facing dramatic changes in the way our student population communicates, learns and interacts with their peers,” said Professor Patricia Riley, president of the Academic Senate, who presided over the retreat. “Their technological competence far surpasses many of their professors.”

Playwright and adjunct faculty member Paula Cizmar of the USC School of Dramatic Arts, who wrote her first script on a manual typewriter, said she now considers herself “techno-joyful.” She uses public, editable Google Docs in her classroom that allow students to edit their classmates’ scripts from their own laptops and smartphones in real time.

A demonstration of the online Master of Social Work degree by Clinical Professor Gary Wood showed how students could role-play a therapy session with an actor portaying a troubled military veteran, all via webcam, while their professor observed. The online MSW@USC now has nearly 1,500 students enrolled.

Elizabeth Garrett, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, praised the strength of USC’s online programs, including the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s recent No. 1 rankings in two online education categories by U.S. News & World Report. She also reiterated the university’s goal to double its distance-learning enrollment and online master’s degree offerings within five years.

“Our online degree programs are thriving,” Garrett said. “[These programs] are held to USC’s highest standards. We think of them as part of our programs, not as a separate set of online programs.”

Jackson DeMos, a student in the USC Rossier School of Education’s online Master of Arts in Teaching, said the interactive nature of his program — with an interface that includes interactive chat boxes and a Brady Bunch-like grid of live video feeds — defies the outdated stereotypes many have of online education.

“There’s a stigma about online education — that it’s like online traffic school you do when you get a speeding ticket,” DeMos said, explaining that the MAT@USC is nothing like that. The program has graduated nearly 1,200 teachers in every state and in 40 countries around the world.

The USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) also experienced a big hit with Reality Ends Here, an alternate reality game designed to reboot the student orientation experience through collaboration on multimedia video and animation projects (though faculty officially deny its existence to keep the game covert and mysterious).

Holly Willis, academic programs director of the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at SCA, explained that at one point, more than 150 students crowded into a classroom building as part of the game, prompting university officials to think they might have a sit-in protest on their hands.

“Hello! We are not protesters,” read a sign posted by the students from the building’s window. “We’re just REALLY EXCITED about learning.”

Eileen Kohan, associate provost and executive director for USC’s Continuing Education and Summer Programs, said online education will allow the university to continue its mission to promote lifelong learning, no matter where students are in the world.

“We are in the forefront of experimentation and innovation,” Kohan said. “We are all part of this grand experiment.”

Manuel Castells, University Professor and holder of the Wallis Annenberg Chair in Communication Technology and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, presented the evening’s keynote address.

In his talk titled “The University: From Theology to Technology,” Castells spoke passionately about the need for global outreach. Open-access lectures, such as massive open online courses, are primarily valuable in spreading a university’s brand in an era of global competition, Castells said.

The retreat concluded with breakout discussions in which faculty brainstormed ways in which USC could publicly showcase innovative online faculty, signature academic programs and research initiatives.

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