In the spring of 2013, I was asked by the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching to conduct a major needs-assessment for the School of Professional Studies at Northwestern aimed at evaluating and improving teaching and learning in four fully online master’s degree programs: information systems, medical informatics, predictive analytics, and public policy and administration. This project involved planning and facilitating 8 focus groups with faculty, students and administrators; conducting multiple structured observations of online courses (and providing feedback to distance learning faculty and instructional designers); and creating and administering surveys of faculty, students and administrators.
Specifically, the SPS leadership team identified three core goals for this project:
- Evaluate the stated teaching philosophy of SPS online programs, including whether the philosophy aligns with the latest research on teaching excellence, and whether the philosophy is communicated to students and faculty so that they can understand the expectations for learning and teaching at SPS.
- Examine the quality of teaching within SPS online programs in three regards: a) the overall (and perceived) quality of the teaching in these programs; b) the degree to which existing synchronous and asynchronous elements support student learning; and c) how well current teaching practices adhere to SCS’s stated teaching philosophy.
- Offer specific recommendations for SCS to improve the quality of teaching and learning in its online programs.
The project culminated in an extensive report detailing five short-term and six long-term recommendations aimed at enhancing the overall experience of SPS students and teachers. I am proud to say that several of these recommendations have since been implemented by SPS. Indeed, for some of the major improvements in the quality of SPS courses and programs that have occurred since this initial study, see my work on the SPS Needs Assessment Follow Up Study (2017).