In today's technology-driven world, it was important to Mercyhurst University professor Gil Jacobs, Ph.D, to meet the changing educational needs of his graduate students. To adapt meant developing a new academic model that was successful — measured by meeting course learning objectives, facilitating quality education and creating satisfaction among his students.
In doing so, Jacobs, assistant professor of business, transformed a traditional, graduate lecture course he created years ago — Organizational Leadership 651: Financial Operations and Analysis — to an online hybrid that integrates conference calls, Skype technology and asynchronous communication through Blackboard.
“For me, it's amazing what the capabilities of technology are and what it is providing us,” said Jacobs.
With the emergence of the World Wide Web, online learning has accelerated. From earning your high school diploma through free online public school to pursuing a four-year baccalaureate degree — and even a two-year graduate degree — online learning is changing the face of education.
“As technology advances, we are going to get even better at adapting it with education,” said Jacobs. “My perception is that the very best teaching is one-on-one; the next is in the classroom with that face-to-face communication; and, the third is probably online, but it's a darn-close third best. It provides a viable learning alternative.”
Through technology, Jacobs is using what he considers “some of the best practices” in education. With the availability of the Web, he taps into Ivy League educational materials from Harvard University, through which students access course materials and case studies in addition to the traditional curriculum of OL651. Jacobs also integrates Oxford Learning Style, a method that organizes students into small groups that meet online once a week with the professor. During these online meetings, each student gives a presentation, which is then critiqued by both the professor and his/her peers. Outside of the hour-long Skype meeting, students communicate and receive assignments through a forum-style Web interface.
“This style of teaching does take a little extra effort on the part of the student because they aren't physically in class with me every week going over every subject,” Jacobs said. “But, since I'm able to bring the very best practices in the classroom right to my students through the use of technology, they can get the best from Harvard and Oxford, as well as the best from Mercyhurst. And, it gives people who are not able to come to the traditional classroom an opportunity to learn.”
While many of his students are recent graduates from a four-year accredited college or are mid-level career professionals striving to advance their careers, 20 percent of Jacobs’ students are international. Currently, Jacobs meets every Tuesday afternoon with three of these students: Javi Cubillos from Chile; Srdjan Popovic from Podgorica, Montenegro; and Fedor Zakusilo from Ukraine. Although each of the students received their undergraduate degrees from Mercyhurst University and currently lives in Erie, they often travel and find that they are able to continue “attending” weekly classes thanks to the Internet.
For Cubillos, who left for winter break earlier than her peers, having the opportunity to continue classes abroad is one of the major benefits of this hybrid approach to academics.
“The major benefit of this online course is the ability to learn from anywhere in the world,” she said. “Since this class is held during winter term, a lot of international students go home, which is what happened with the students in my group.”
Having enrolled in online courses outside of Mercyhurst, Cubillos said this experience is completely different and refreshing. “The virtual classroom experience has been a positive surprise,” she said. “I had taken other online classes before but nothing that resembled this ‘hybrid’ model. I enjoy meeting with my professor and my team each week to discuss news articles; I learn a lot from them. I also think it's effective for us to complete the work on our own and ask questions during our Skype meetings.”
Although the virtual classroom feels different than a traditional academic environment, Popovic said the education he is receiving is very similar.
“In essence, the online course is not much different because, just like in a traditional in-class lecture, students still need to follow the requirements of the course and study on their own,” said Popovic, who prefers the traditional classroom and peer interaction but still sees the benefits of the online course.
“Everything is laid out for the student who can always contact the professor for clarification,” he added. “Just like during our meetings through Skype, we are able to ask questions and request needed explanations. If a student needs a classroom schedule to be flexible, then the online course would definitely be an advantage.”
Due to a majority of positive feedback, Jacobs has come to the conclusion that he has found an interactive, online course that works effectively for his students. He plans to continue offering OL651 online next fall, and is looking to transform core organization leadership courses to the same format within the next few years.