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Interview: How Newhouse School’s Online Degree Will Change Virtual Education (PBS MediaShift)

Originally published by PBS MediaShift. Written by Meagan Doll.

Syracuse University’s new online master’s program in communications, Communications@Syracuse, will welcome its first class of students in July 2015. Program Director Anthony Rotolo will facilitate introductions on the first day via video with all the enrolled students. He is looking forward to connecting faces to names and bridging the digital distance so often criticized in online education.

Rotolo is known well at Syracuse for his “Trek Class” that teaches the science and storytelling of “Star Trek,” as well as the #RotoloClass and its use of real-time social media during the class.

"I actually don’t buy the argument that there is anything inferior about learning online. What is inferior about learning online is the way that it has been done most of the time, until now." - Anthony Rotolo

Through a partnership with education technology company 2U Inc., the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications has developed a degree program emphasizing digital trends and innovation through an engaging online platform — one of the first of its kind in the field of communication education. EdShift talked with Rotolo about this virtual face-to-face classroom and how it may be changing — and improving — online instruction.


What was the drive behind creating an online master’s program?

Anthony Rotolo: That’s an interesting question. I was actually hired after that decision was made; I joined the Newhouse School explicitly to create an online program. Dean [Lorraine] Branham had felt that pursuing the online delivery of courses was something that had a lot of potential — both for the ongoing success of the school and our ability to reach more grad students than are typically able to relocate for grad school. As I joined Newhouse and we started looking at what the curriculum really should involve, one of the things I focused on is that there are a lot of people working in communications right now or who are performing communications functions as part of their jobs but never imagined doing this type of work when they were in college. But media has changed and merged with other types of work in technology and business, and so today we are all in the communications business, so to speak, and more and more working people are looking for knowledge in this area. I wanted to create a program that addressed this reality and made it possible for more professionals to get a master’s degree in communications. I felt that getting that degree from a top-ranked school without having to leave your job or home would be very appealing. So that was sort of the original idea — not only a question of can we get more students, but that there are probably already a lot of students we’re not serving by not offering the online option.

What can online virtual instruction bring to communication education that a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom may not?

AR: The truth is that we can actually do far more online than we can do in person in a classroom. That’s my very real belief. What our online program allows us to do is have real-time sessions between student and teacher. But also, the types of activities and content we can deliver throughout the week — what we refer to as asynchronous or on-their-own-time content— is so much more interactive and so much more engaging than what can be done in a classroom where you typically have students forcing themselves to pay attention to you. This is a much more comfortable learning environment and it’s a much more capable learning environment. And so I actually don’t buy the argument that there is anything inferior about learning online. What is inferior about learning online is the way that it has been done most of the time, until now.

What did the program’s development process look like?

AR: That was an experience of a lifetime! I was hired very early on as soon as it was decided that there would be an online program. I started working with the deans to sketch out what we thought the direction was going to be, and early on my idea was that we needed to address this blurring of the lines that’s happening between the different communications disciplines and media industries. Once we had that concept, we worked through so many different faculty groups and committees. We had a specialized task force specifically for online programs so that different faculty voices were heard from all of our disciplines in the school. Then the program went through the entire university faculty approval process and then through another process with the State of New York. So, that may seem really boring, but what I can tell you in short is that the Newhouse faculty weighed in really at every point in the development of this program. And as a result, we have something that I think is very well thought-out but is also very new and different than what we had been doing before.

What advice do you have for programs who are interested in implementing similar programs?

AR: Online is not something that can be done easily, and it’s not something that can be done cheaply. So other programs that are looking to this have to be aware that this is a major undertaking, and in a sense, it is as much of a cultural change as it is a content change. One of the lessons that we learned along the way and that was anticipated is that as soon as you wade into online education and if you’re a school like Newhouse that rightfully insists that everything be done excellently, you have to really commit a lot of resources to do it right. In the end, you end up retooling even existing classes because just because it was excellent in person does not mean that it will be excellent online. So I think that there is a misconception about the amount of work it takes to do this—that teaching online is somehow just repurposing content and watering it down for mass consumption on the internet. It’s exactly the opposite. It does become a science of its own, and it’s not easy. It takes a real commitment to the medium.

What projects or research do you foresee being exceptionally innovative through this teaching initiative?

AR: There are actually a lot of things. Our belief about students needing a more diverse mix of communications skills is going to be tested, and I think we’ll be proved right in that students will benefit from courses and content across various aspects of communications. We have three tracks in the program — advertising, public relations and journalism innovation — and students will choose one to complete in its entirety. But what’s important about the core curriculum is that the courses are very digitally focused, and in a sense the core content touches upon all three specializations. So students in this program are not placed in silos in the way that they may traditionally have been when students pick a major. We’ve intentionally developed this to be a little bit more flexible and reflective of the modern working environment for people doing media communications.

But some of the activities that the students are going to do will also be innovative, like working with emerging media technologies and what we’re calling “journalism innovations” as one track in the program. There will be a lot of opportunities for students to work with things like virtual reality, immersive content experiences and mobile and web content production. A lot of these things are new, not only for the Newhouse School but for communications schools in general. So I think there there’s a lot of opportunity in this program for students to do work and research that’s new and different. And that’s exciting because that’s of course going to influence what we do across the entire spectrum as a school.

What are you most looking forward to as you welcome the first class of students in July 2015?

AR: I’m really looking forward to actually seeing their faces — this is an online program, but we will be seeing their faces multiple times a week. I’m looking forward to connecting faces with names as we start to admit our first students. We had a great launch of this program last week; the first application was submitted within the first four hours of opening. As the program director, I’m excited to meet the people who are really going to shape our first class. I think we’re going to have a solid class — what I’m calling a “rock star class” — of students who are really brave and really ready to tackle this new way of earning a master’s degree. And I think they’re going to hit it out of the park with their work.

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