While holding leadership positions at several institutions of higher learning in the early 1990s, we developed a unique vision for a new online university based on the Robust Learning Model, a holistic approach to learning derived from our own published research.
To complete our learning framework, we developed an integrated system of information technology, an elaborate faculty deployment plan with specific roles and qualifications, multi-faceted student services focusing on students and learning, rapidity of response criteria for addressing student questions and providing feedback on student assignments, and advanced indicators of institutional performance and learning effectiveness. We presented the new approach in various professional forums, but most of our fellow academics were skeptical of its chances of succeeding, given the strength of the existing paradigm of traditional universities at that time.
Determined to prove our skeptics wrong, we began searching for a partner to facilitate the full implementation of the Robust Learning Model. In March 1998, the president and founder of Touro College in New York, a comprehensive non-profit university with regional accreditation, invited us to establish and head a new distance education division for his university. It was a perfect match, and we set out to establish Touro University International.
A unique pedagogy was designed and developed so that learning could be effectively supported by information technology, faculty, student services and overall organizational performance. High quality faculty focused on and committed to organizational performance and learning effectiveness were recruited and hired. Information technology was developed to support faculty, student services, organizational effectiveness and learning effectiveness.
Realizing that student engagement and the rapidity of feedback are keys to student success and retention, a mandatory response time of 24/72 (excluding weekends) was instituted. All staff and faculty members were required to respond to all students and potential students within 24 hours from receiving any email and/or phone communication, while all learning related activities were to be assessed with appropriate feedback within 72 hours from the time that each activity was posted.
Touro University International became a separately accredited institution and turned out to be an academic and financial success. In 2007, TUI was sold by Touro College and later was renamed Trident University International.
With Touro University International, a unique case of the new web-based online learning environment in the late 1990s, our roles were that of founders and academic intrapreneurs. In 2012, we rejoined Touro in the new roles of turnaround management for a division that had opened in 2008 named Touro University Worldwide (TUW).
Over the past four years, we have implemented a more advanced version of the Robust Learning Model, taking advantage of past experience with the model, cloud and mobile technology, and new developments in our conceptual map for an online university. Using our online learning environment conceptual map as well as elaborate assessment of strategies that worked and strategies that did not, TUW was indeed turned around both academically and financially.
Setting the standards for the best practices in online education
Online education has been practiced for almost two decades. Like any new paradigm, the start was murky and many of the elite institutions that were first to jump on the bandwagon failed miserably. Slowly but surely, institutions that employed a more strategic approach and persistently invested in the development and continuous improvement of their practice, succeeded in meaningfully shaping the new virtual education landscape.
Various studies reviewed the “Best Practices in Online Learning,” and there has been a high level of consensus as to what these best practices represent. The most important best practices facets include:
- Systematic development and assessment of the degree program curricula based on program learning goals (competency based education, if applied correctly, can be part of it);
- Effective student orientation into the online degree program;
- The selection of an appropriate online pedagogy and learning model;
- The provision of a variety of learning activities to attain student learning outcomes for each course (e.g., interactive learning via threaded discussions, problem based learning, and project based learning);
- A high level of student engagement and faculty participation, which also includes a focus on the quality and immediacy of the faculty feedback on various assignment;
- A proactive program of assessment of learning outcomes (at the course, program, and institution levels);
- User friendly learning management systems that fully support the learning model and assessment, proactive and supportive student administrative services;
- Proactive and supportive online student advising and retention services.
The aforementioned facets are part of an emerging consensus regarding the best practices in online learning leading to high student retention, success, and sustainable learning.
When conducting several experiments of comparing online students using our model with face-to-face students taking the same course with the same professor under the traditional classroom model, online students outperformed their face-to-face counterparts.
Online Education for the Jewish World
Online learning is indeed the great equalizer enabling diverse and distant Jewish populations to enrich their knowledge through online degree programs. Online learning is affordable, student-centered and convenient for working adults and for their employers as well as for Jewish students preparing themselves for a competitive job market.
The evolving world of higher education is becoming even more effective and accepted by tech-savvy students and their employers. These groups value the ability to allow learning-on-demand which opens new advancement opportunities and mobility to these diverse groups, increasing their success as learners and earners in the ever changing global world.
Today, the best accredited online schools have increasingly interactive web-based courses with technologies that encourage real-time professor/student interaction. Our fragile economy and the worldwide reality of adult learners juggling work along with higher education for career advancement makes online learning THE answer for career advancement.
Through Touro University Worldwide, we have been able to realize our goal of creating a learning environment where students can receive a higher education degree on their own schedule, allowing them to pursue careers simultaneously. The Touro College and University System is a not-for-profit, visionary institution that aims to serve the underserved and promote academic success that translates into professional advancement. We believe in the mission of the college and have dedicated the majority of our life to upholding that mission.
Drawing from the Judaic principles on which the school was founded, Touro students receive a holistic education. Our graduates are not only skilled in critical thinking, problem solving and communication, but they are also ethical leaders and global citizens. This online learning flexibility and coordination with employer’s needs and schedules make online and distance learning these days not only acceptable, but actually preferable by a growing number of employers. Parenthetically, an equally growing number of employers are coming from the ranks of the online learners, so selling them on the process is just preaching to the choir.
Yoram Neumann and Edith Neumann