Delivering Quality Education Online

NYU Boosts Online Student Enrollment with Centra

Centra Symposium Group

New York University (NYU) is one of the most respected and prestigious universities in the country. Its well-known School of Professional and Continuing Studies (SPCS) is the largest institution of its kind in the United States. I t offers more than 5,000 courses per year to 60,000 students and corporate professionals. The school is focused on serving adults at any stage of life and on providing professional education across a wide spectrum of industries.

Several years ago the school launched online education in an effort to offer expanded learning opportunities to students and professionals regardless of their location. But by the mid 1990's, this vision for rich, interactive online learning environments remained technically out of reach. The online technologies available were too limited, making the experience static, unengaging and difficult to access. “We needed to preserve our reputation in a field that was becoming larger by the minute. We had to figure out how to make the content more engaging and the courses cognitively as challenging as the ones delivered on campus,” says Robert Manuel, Chief Information Technology Officer, at New York University's School of Professional and Continuing Studies (SPCS).

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Manuel envisioned a better online classroom experience that facilitated highly interactive learning. But, how does a university actually create online education in a manner consistent with its outstanding reputation? First, know what quality education is he says. And second, apply the right technology to truly support the first initiative. Manuel found a solution that included Centra. “We were being dumbed down by the technology that was available,” says Manuel. Using Centra's virtual classroom solution, SPCS has dramatically improved the quality of its online education, and tapped a new international audience for its services through a new Virtual College.

Defining Quality Online Education

For NYU, the most basic issue for online learning was one of quality. Manuel and his team needed to define what made a quality online educational experience and then translate that into technical product needs. Knowing that the curriculum is largely the same onsite or online, Manuel determined that it was the experience of online students that affected the quality and effectiveness of the educational program. Manuel and his team identified key factors that could improve the experience, including:

Human Interaction - The primary challenge was to mimic the experience of a physical classroom. The online class needed to be more interactive and more human than their existing solution. “We found that we couldn't deliver a quality educational experience without having real access to the experts making the educational process more human and meaningful,” he says. The online experience had to recreate the live experience of the physical classroom with real-time interactions. That included having direct access to faculty and other students, an ability to meet during office hours, and the opportunity to join in on special lectures and presentations.

Ease of Use - The material delivered in a physical classroom setting is offered in meaningful segments and the class itself is relatively free from distractions. Online students need a simple, user-friendly environment. “We know that if there is too much stimuli the student is going to be confused on where to focus his attention,” says Manuel. He needed to create an online environment that was easy to use, so that students could focus on the learning materials, not on how the technology works.

Flexible Options - One of SPCS's key challenges was to recreate the flexibility of onsite classes in the online world. The online program needed to handle unexpected changes such as the special requirements of non-traditional classes or a corporate client's changing needs. It also needed to allow the student to participate in a breakout session or catch up on a missed class.

Administrative Capabilities - Onsite teachers handle several administrative functions such as scheduling and administering tests and managing student attendance. Online, there are additional tasks such as recording and archiving sessions. The technology had to make these and other administrative tasks easy to do. Everything needed to be intuitive and dynamic.

Centra Supports NYU's Quality Initiative

With their criteria defined, SPCS looked for technologies that would fulfill these requirements. While many technologies offered partial solutions, only Centra met and delivered against SPCS's needs. “Until Centra came along, there wasn't a good system for replicating the communication that comes in the physical classroom. There wasn't a way for faculty to communicate with students directly, which allows for higher-level learning operations like synthesis and evaluation,” he says. Some of the Centra features that stood out in meeting Manuel's criteria for a more human, high quality experience include:

Voice Over IP - Centra's integrated voice over IP technology allows for real-time interaction over the Internet. It facilitates communication and makes the experience more interactive. With only a 28.8 kbps connection needed, students can participate in the Centra session and interact in real-time from anywhere around the world. “All of the communication products that existed in the past didn't allow for meaningful communication online. Centra enabled us to boost the quality of communication between our faculty and students in a meaningful way. This has helped us to deliver quality education that is consistent with our mission,” says Manuel. Using Centra, The Virtual College provides live online lectures, office hours, and access to special guest lectures.

Usability - “After we chose Centra for our Virtual College, we were able to bring online learning back to the classroom metaphor,” he says. Like the classroom, The Virtual College lets a student interact with a teacher, see engaging content and join in on breakout sessions. All of this is done easily with Centra using a PC and a Web browser. With the Centra implementation, SPCS's professors are able to present the educational material in meaningful segments, do evaluations online and provide additional lab exercises. Communication between the teachers and students is in real time.

Record and Playback - With Centra's record and playback capabilities, professors can easily record all or parts of a live virtual classroom session for playback at a later time. This feature makes online learning extremely flexible and responsive to the needs of the students. Students can review missed classes and brush up on particular portions of a lecture. Students with special needs can also "self-pace" their learning.

Ease of Integration and Implementation - Finally, SPCS needed to integrate this program seamlessly with other state-of-the-art systems. “Because Centra has the ability to integrate with the other platforms, we have been able to create a very flexible environment. It allows the faculty and the students to create their own environment and it has given us greater flexibility to deliver products in the marketplace. It has allowed us to be quicker to market and it has allowed us to preserve the quality that differentiates us from other online university programs,” says Manuel.

Expanding Into New Markets

NYU isn't just breaking down student access barriers with Centra; it is breaking through international borders too. “Our Virtual College is now able to service students better—our quality is increased. This enables us to attract students from further away,” says Manuel. NYU is expanding into the Spanish speaking market. Already, NYU has signed deals with Terra Lycos, a global Internet company, to deliver online education into all Spanish-speaking countries.

Business Results Summary

New York University's School of Professional and Continuing Studies is breaking new ground. Having dramatically improved the caliber of its offering, NYU can now attract a broader base of students from around the country and around the world. Since the program has been in place, there has been a dramatic shift in student enrollment including:

  • 1,200 online students each term
  • 5% of new student enrollment is now international
  • More than 45% of the U.S. student population is located away from the Tri-State New York area
  • Faculty members are able to teach from remote locations as well
  • Course completion and program retention rates are all up as a result of the redesign

NYU Attracts More Students with Quality Programs

NYU has used the Centra product to revamp and expand its online offerings. With improved interactivity and ease of use, The Virtual College is attracting thousands of new students each term from around the world. The results are all good says Manuel. “I am impressed with Centra for the human element of online education. That really is a distinguishing factor between what was available before and what is available now,” he says.

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The Virtual College is a registered trademark of New York University.

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