In May 2013, I graduated from Loyola University Maryland with an undergraduate business degree in marketing. That summer, I enrolled in the M.A. in Emerging Media program at Loyola as a full-time student. I had no expectations for this distance learning Master’s program because my previous experience with online classes was limited to one hybrid course. Immediately, however, I recognized that my new graduate courses were influenced by the familiar Jesuit approach to education that influenced my professional, social, and spiritual development as an undergraduate.
Small class size is important, even online
Before I enrolled in the program, I attended a virtual information session that confirmed the courses would feature small class sizes, direct access to professors and resources, and step-by-step course assignments, each building off one another. But it was in August 2013, only weeks before classes were set to begin, that I received an email advising participants that the class swelled to 30 and that we would be broken into two sections of 15 to maintain Loyola’s standard of small class sizes.
Initially, I did not understand what difference it made if we had 15 or 100 students in our class considering the entire program was online, other than a two-week residency session over the summer. However, during the first week of class, I learned quickly why it is essential to keep classes small: to maintain a sense of community. The small classes give students the opportunity to effectively communicate with each other on discussion boards and through other assignments, as opposed to larger class sizes where an overload of communication can dilute the material. For example, students use a discussion board for each class to reflect on assignments through posts and comments on classmates’ posts. That type of enriching interactive experience would not be possible if too many students were posting, because the time available to become really engaged in the discussion board would be significantly reduced.
Not just filling classes
Emerging Media is building a community, not just filling classes. Every student in the program, whether full-time or part-time, is enrolled in Orientation and Student Lounge courses. There is no in-person orientation, so the Orientation course provides program information and tutorials for students to practice working with Moodle, a bulletin board application where professors post assignments and students can interact with coursework. These courses also ask students to create and upload videos introducing themselves. All of the Emerging Media professors made videos as well, whether or not they were teaching during the fall 2013 semester.
It was tremendously helpful to get to know my classmates and the professors in the program within the first few weeks of class. Plus, the Student Lounge provides all students with continued contact with each other throughout the program, no matter if they are full-time or part-time. The Water Cooler Forum in the Student Lounge allows students to ask each other general program questions and, when appropriate, professors will chime in. Recently, I was able to advise everyone in the program that my Twitter account had been hacked; on another occasion, I used the forum to ask for volunteers to participate in a survey for my research project. For another classmate, the forum served as a place to post a social media job opening.
Assignments rooted in technological discernment
The material is both challenging and exciting. I am most fascinated by our discussions of how recent technological advancements have impacted users’ behavioral and psychological natures particularly in social media activity. In today’s environment, almost all organizations, whether non-profit or for-profit, maintain an internet presence on one or more social media channels. Communication is no longer just informative, no longer just one-way; it’s participatory, allowing for two-way communication between users and organizations. Loyola’s Emerging Media program was created largely as a response to this rapid evolution of technology in our world.
Learning elements of the classes are done through Moodle and Lync, an instant messenger program. We are given deadlines for assignments and set our own pace to learn the course material. My part-time classmates who are employed full-time value the ability to set their own pace, and full-time students like me are drawn to the flexibility as well.
Students are given an eclectic mix of assignments, including the discussion board posts I mentioned earlier, Wiki posts (collaborative posts that everyone can edit), and research projects. Also included in the assignments is a blog feature where students identify current events involving social media to share with the class. Professors are available during school days on Lync for instant messaging and video or voice-calling, and also respond quickly to email messages, even over the weekend, for students who work during the week. In addition, the instant messaging dynamic has given me a newfound appreciation for reduced email volume. Not only am I more organized, but the confusion that sometimes arises when trying to resolve issues over email is all but eliminated, leaving more time for students to interact with professors on substantive matters.
I’m not just a number
Loyola’s Emerging Media program is an “anti-MOOC,” in the words of Elliot King, Ph.D., chair of Loyola’s department of communication. It’s an intimate distance learning program where, unlike in a MOOC, I feel deeply connected to my classmates and the curriculum. I do not feel that I am 1 of 10,000 students. I’m not just a number. This sense of community is grounded in Loyola’s mission to “inspire students to learn, lead, and serve in a diverse and changing world.” From my experience at Loyola as an undergraduate student and now a distance learning graduate student, it’s clear that the University at every level has maintained a high standard of student engagement and academic rigor, whether students are learning at a desk or through a screen.
Photo of Susan Whitson Bagley courtesy of Loyola University Maryland