When Jenni Travasos decided she wanted to go into education, she faced a few more challenges than typical aspiring teachers: She had two children of her own, her husband had a demanding job and she was already teaching physical education part-time. “I wanted to find a program where I could get a credential,” she recalls, “but I couldn’t find anything that fit my schedule.”
That was when she discovered a fledgling online program offered not by a for-profit group, but by a name widely respected within education: the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. “I thought: ‘Could this be? There’s this program and it has everything I want? And it’s USC?’” Now, as Travasos starts her second year as a 7th grade language arts and history teacher at Pleasanton Middle School, she still marvels that what she found wasn’t an Internet scam but a genuine program that helped her become the kind of teacher she hoped to be.
Over the past five years, online education and MOOCs have captured the imagination--and, at times, the disdain--of educators and students alike. Yet during that same period, Rossier has been steadily building a powerful online master’s degree program education in partnership with for-profit company, 2U.
The online program has transformed Rossier’s 96-year old program, which between 2010 and 2014 graduated more than 2,000 Master of Arts degrees in teaching (MATs), more than any other traditional nonprofit college or university. (Between 2005 and 2010, the school graduated fewer than 200 MAT students.) Equally important, says Karen Symms Gallagher, Dean of the USC Rossier School of Education, is that the quality of education is strong.
“We’ve learned that technology is not a panacea,” Gallagher says. “You have to know what you want people to know, and then use multiple ways of teaching.”
Rossier, which was established in 1918, was graduating about 50 MAT students a year around 2008, when John Katzman, cofounder of 2U, approached Gallagher with an idea. His startup (then called 2Tor), proposed to build a collaborative learning platform that professors could use to teach students anywhere.
A portion of the program would be videotaped instructional materials that students could watch at their convenience. But no matter how well done, just putting lectures online amounts to the 21st century equivalent of a correspondence course, Gallagher notes. “That’s not how most people learn,” she notes. “Just because you have technology doesn’t mean they will engage, or that they’ll get out of it what you think they should.”
In the online MAT program, students sign up for live, two-hour long sessions with about 15 people, including a professor. Students and professors can see and hear one another. Students also form study groups, where they share ideas and collaborate. “Your face is right there, as is the face of the professor and others,” Gallagher says. “You can engage on this platform with videos and written material and the instructors are mediating that virtual classroom.” Gallagher says that this “virtual classroom” was what convinced Rossier to try to the program.
“It was a very connected program,” recalls Travasos, who started the program in September 2010. “We’d see each other’s faces, chat in the chat box, speak to the professor. We really got to know each other. One of the friends I developed in the program was in Croatia,” she says.
The program is hardly cheap: getting an online Masters degree from Rossier costs more than $50K a year, the same cost as its traditional campus program. But it’s an expensive program for Rossier, too: “We’ve had to increase our infrastructure to meet the needs of all these students,” Gallagher says. “Our students can have health care and we offer the same services and support as if they’re on campus.” Rossier’s staff has grown, too: its full-time staff is now 73, up 28% since 2008. The number of adjuncts is 265, up 145% since 2008.
What’s more, with so many students scattered across 47 U.S. states and 38 countries, Rossier and 2U have had to work harder to arrange student teaching programs and support their students after they’ve graduated.
“What we’ve learned is that we have to partner much more with [K-12] schools in preparing our students and even once they hire our graduates,” Gallagher says. “We didn’t realize that at first.”
“When it came time to do student teaching, [Rossier] set it all up for me,” says Travaso. “I had phenomenal [online] professors, guiding me through reflections about my very local student teaching process.”
2U pitches in, too, helping recruit the districts and, as of a year ago, offering $5,000 scholarships to full-time teachers who want to enroll in Rossier’s masters programs. “We’re saying that we want to be partners [with the districts] in preparing, recruiting, hiring and retaining teachers,” Gallagher says.
So far, it’s working. Gallagher reports that more than 80% of Rossier’s online students are working in education. Interestingly enough, the average age of the online students is a decade older than those on campus: online students average 33 years old while those on campus average 23 years old. Much like Travasos, many are turning to teaching as a second or third career, and have other jobs even as they embark on the master’s program. That means that on average, it takes them 21 months to complete the program instead of the typical 13 months for on-campus students.
The online students are no less committed, Gallagher says, and they remain engaged with Rossier, their professors and with one another after earning their degree. “The faculty actually interacts with the students much more than when they just knock on their doors,” Gallagher muses.
Travaso sounds almost bashful about her enthusiasm for the program--but the preparation has paid off. She’s been recognized as a leader in using technology at her school. “I feel that I’m part of a community of learners. Just getting a taste of what’s available online has made me a constant learner,” she says. “I’m curious and a constant learner. And I’m happy to share what I know.”