Interview with Dr. Susan Aldridge, President of Drexel University Online and Sr. VP of Online Learning at Drexel University

About Susan C. Aldridge, Ph.D.

Dr. Susan C. Aldridge serves as president of Drexel University Online, a division of Drexel University, a pioneer in technology-enhanced education, where she pursues new approaches to online teaching and student tracking that improve learning outcomes across more than 140 online degree and certificate programs. She also directs the administrative division that provides comprehensive student services for online learners. Prior to joining Drexel University, Dr. Aldridge spent 18 years in postsecondary executive leadership in some of the largest universities in the United States, including University of Maryland University College and Troy University in Alabama. She also held a faculty position at the National University of Singapore.

Dr. Aldridge has served many different academic and professional boards and commissions over the course of her career, such as the Servicemembers Opportunities Colleges; the International Council for Open and Distance Education; and the NASULGC-Sloan National Commission on Online Learning, among others. She was appointed to the Air University Board of Directors by the U.S. Secretary of Defense and, more recently, to the Marine Corps University Board of Visitors by the U.S. Secretary of the Navy.

Dr. Aldridge’s extensive service and leadership experience has won her a number of accolades, including the Women in Technology Award for International Technology Advancement; Maryland’s Top 100 Women Award; the U.S. Distance Learning Associations 2013 Hall of Fame award for Leadership in Distance Learning; and Washington D.C.’s 100 Most Powerful Women Award.  She holds master’s and doctorate degrees in public administration from the University of Colorado. Susan’s many accolades, publications, and speeches are available for review on her website, www.drsusanaldridge.com.

Interview Questions

[OnlineEducation.com] New and perspective students without prior online learning experience often wonder how online courses actually work. Can you describe the day in the life of a student attending Drexel University Online (DUO)? If not all courses work the same way, what are some of the most significant differences among them and how do they shape the student experience?

[Dr. Aldridge] In many ways, online learning at Drexel is similar to on-ground learning. Our virtual students follow the same curriculum, study with the same faculty, and turn in the same assignments as their on-campus peers. They are simply earning their degrees from a distance in a virtual classroom rather than a physical one, and communicating with their professors and fellow students through the wonders of technology.

For the most part, our courses are designed around asynchronous learning, which means that students can log onto Drexel’s Blackboard learning management system at any time to complete the required work on their own schedule, spending, on average, four to six hours a day in the classroom, depending on their course load. And because most of them are balancing the demands of school with the responsibilities of career and family, their academic day generally begins once the evening rush hour is over.

In addition to traditional instructional methodologies, such as textbooks, case studies, and group projects, Drexel’s online students use a variety of interactive technologies to submit their assignments and communicate with their professors and classmates – many of which are designed to replicate what we educators call the social and cognitive presence of face-to-face learning.

For example, online discussion forums are the virtual version of in-class discussion, in that the professor poses a thought-provoking question about the unit or topic being studied as a prompt for student reflection and response, both individually and collectively. Yet because these forums are asynchronous, students also have more time to actually weigh the issues and develop their ideas, which most of them will tell you offers a distinct advantage over in-the-moment, face-to-face communication.

Of course, a significant number of Drexel’s online courses have at least some synchronous – or real-time – learning component. So students might use videoconferencing technology to connect with their professors and classmates at a specified time to complete a collaborative project or take part in a group discussion. And as is often the custom in distance education, some of Drexel’s online programs also incorporate short-term residencies, where students travel to our Philadelphia campus for a long weekend, where they attend classes in-person.

As for other forms of communication, students always have the option of connecting and collaborating with their professors and classmates by Skype, phone, or email. Likewise, social media has become a very effective forum for offline communication among online students who, in addition to using Drexel’s “official” social sites, have been known to create their own virtual meeting spaces outside of the classroom. For instance, a group of virtual students in the [RN-Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN-BSN)] program formed a Facebook group, as a way to study and network together – something they plan to maintain as a professional outlet beyond graduation.

[OnlineEducation.com] How about day-to-day learning. How do instructors actually teach over the Internet? Are there certain instructional methods and/or technologies that make Drexel University Online courses particularly unique or effective?

[Dr. Aldridge] When it comes to teaching and learning online, universities like Drexel follow a simple, but research-validated principle.To be successful, students must have ample opportunities to bridge what we call the transactional distance by regularly interacting with one another, with the professor, and with the content, using technologies and methods of instruction that fully facilitate that interaction.

Instructors who teach in this space are also very much aware of the need for establishing a teaching presence that facilitates and directs the learning process in ways that engage students in active and authentic, measurable, and customized learning experiences. At Drexel, our faculty is always looking for new and more effective technologies for achieving that objective.

For example, in some programs we are implementing virtual reality through sophisticated simulations and games that provide a risk-free, but challenging environment for engaging students in authentic problem-based activities and role-playing exercises aimed at developing the skills they need to become successful practitioners. Consequently, these high-tech experiential teaching tools empower them to learn by doing, as they master expert knowledge and complex skills.

Our College of Nursing and Health Professions collaborated with Tata Interactive Systems to develop a simulation-based learning solution for online students pursuing a certificate in forensic trends and issues in contemporary healthcare, a program that prepares healthcare professionals to conduct comprehensive, sensitive, and legally sufficient clinical assessments in the aftermath of violent crime.

With that in mind, the program director has incorporated sophisticated simulations to ensure that students have the digital tools they need to translate classroom skills into real-world practice. For instance, a three-dimensional virtual crime scene, complete with multiple “clues” and continuous feedback, enables students to practice and perfect a vulnerability risk assessment. There are also realistic simulations that students use to apply appropriate strategies for interviewing victims and offenders. What’s more, these simulations are designed with a playback feature for students to use in reviewing and improving performance.

In a similar vein, the College of Nursing and Health Professions is using an avatar named Tina Jones to help online nursing students sharpen their clinical practice skills from a distance. This 29-year-old virtual patient responds like any real-life patient with a complicated medical history and a distinct personality. Thus, she offers a unique chance for students to test-drive their diagnostic and interpersonal skills by performing high-stakes clinical assessments, over and over, if necessary. In addition, by observing the interaction online, instructors can supply face-to-face feedback around targeted areas for improvement through videoconferencing applications like Skype and Zoom.

We are also using self-produced videos as a methodology for supporting essential skills. For example, in teaching an online training and development course at our School of Education, one professor includes a key assignment on public speaking. And to make it more engaging and authentic for her students, she requires them to post their own video presentations using a software called Acclaim, which was developed by a design team that included another Drexel faculty member in our Close School of Entrepreneurship.

This platform allows for time-stamped, annotated comments, a feature that is currently unavailable within the Blackboard learning management system. But as you might imagine, it is an extremely valuable video-recording tool for eliciting feedback from both the professor and the class. Students then use these comments to produce and post a new and improved video presentation as their final assignment.

[OnlineEducation.com] Studies suggest online students may cheat less often than those taking face-to-face courses even though they are not under direct supervision. How do students attending Drexel University take exams in online courses? Are there measures in place that prevent or identify academic dishonesty like plagiarism or cheat sheets?

[Dr. Aldridge] Like most online higher education providers, Drexel University employs a three-pronged approach to maintaining academic integrity among its virtual students. We create solid barriers to cheating, while also making every effort to identify and sanction it as it occurs or directly after the fact. At the same time, we foster a principled community of inquiry that, in turn, motivates students to act in ethical ways. So with this triad in mind, we have implemented more than a few strategies and systems to ensure academic integrity.

We use authentication technologies to electronically affirm an online student’s identity. We are continuously evaluating new products in this area. For example, webcams allow us to verify physical features like facial structure that can be checked against government-issued IDs. Another software called BioSig-ID uses keystroke analysis to recognize keyboard typing patterns, based on rhythm, pressure, and style, which is nearly as accurate as actual fingerprint authentication.

By the same token, Drexel’s online faculty employs a variety of virtual test-taking strategies that have proven effective when it comes to preventing students from cheating on exams, such as allowing students only a limited amount of time to sign into and take an online exam, or using a randomized sequence of exam questions and answers, which varies from one student to the next. Our College of Nursing and Health Professions has also adopted a remote proctoring system called ProctorU, which integrates webcams with microphones that enable well-trained live proctors to monitor and/or record test-takers, by watching body language, eye movement, or other physical attributes known to indicate suspicious behavior. And based on its success, other colleges and schools at Drexel are considering pilot programs, using this system.

As for preventing plagiarism, Drexel has implemented a software tool called turnitin, which employs a massive content comparison database to provide students with comprehensive feedback on their use of source material. What’s more, we have a very clear process in place for any student who violates the university’s academic integrity policy, along with a faculty committee that is dedicated to investigating issues of academic dishonesty.

[OnlineEducation.com] Another potential concern among prospective online learners is the level of support they can receive remotely. How does Drexel University support its online students? What student services are available and how do students access them?

[Dr. Aldridge] As we know from experience, students are more likely to succeed when they feel connected to a supportive, inclusive, and academically challenging learning environment. This is particularly true when it comes to online students, who do not have the benefit of a physical campus community. So in providing them with an online learning experience that not only meets, but exceeds their expectations, we have to create and nurture a virtual campus community that incorporates the support services and systems they need to be successful throughout the student lifecycle – from enrollment to graduation and beyond.

That means furnishing 24/7 technical support – to ensure that students are always able to use the learning management system – as well as digital access to the university’s writing center, along with its award-winning library. Likewise, they are only a phone call or email away from academic advising, career support, and financial aid services; and they can enroll in classes and pay their tuition online.

At Drexel, we also know that support should begin at the point of initial student contact. With that in mind, we offer an online course that allows prospective students to “test-drive” the virtual learning environment, at no cost, before they even enroll, an important first step in boosting long-term student success. As designed, prospective students log on to a simulated and password-protected course module, where they may access course materials, interact with peers, communicate with university faculty and staff, and submit practice assignments.

Each session incorporates specialized content (geared to individual programs and expressed student needs) and robust learning activities around concepts and procedures that are key to the online student experience – such as navigating support services, using digital library resources, and managing time and workload.

In addition, we are building an online orientation for newly enrolled virtual students to ensure that they know where and how to access the services and strategies they need to be successful in completing their degrees and certificates from a distance. Simply put, we want to help them feel confident, competent, and ready to begin their online learning experiences.

This online orientation, which will be accessible through our Blackboard learning management system, is designed to acquaint students with the various support services and success strategies available to them throughout their academic journeys with us at Drexel. Likewise, its four modules will provide both synchronous and asynchronous opportunities for students to learn more about Drexel University, while also interacting with university community members, as well as with one another.

And finally, we are using social media to build community among the university’s online students, by engaging them from a distance in campus-based activities, such as the annual student holiday party and Drexel’s homecoming festivities.

[OnlineEducation.com] According to its website, Drexel University offers more than 140 online degree and certificate programs, including online graduate and doctorate degrees. Why do online doctoral programs remain relatively uncommon and is this likely to change? Do certain disciplines accommodate doctorate-level learning online more than others? How does the University approach research projects, practical requirements, or dissertations in an online environment?

[Dr. Aldridge] While the online environment is not easily adaptable for research-based Ph.D. programs, it does lend itself especially well to completing a professional or applied doctoral degree program, such as the Doctor of Education (Ed.D) or the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs we offer fully online at Drexel. Although both degree types involve rigorous, high-level graduate study, they are distinctly different in their focus.

A Ph.D. requires the student to master a subject completely and then build upon the body of knowledge in that subject through research, which generally means being on or very near a campus to work closely with research faculty and dissertation advisors. As you might imagine, that is a difficult balancing act for someone who is studying from a distance of 75 to 100 miles away.

On the other hand, while an applied doctorate also requires you to master a subject completely, the ultimate goal is to apply what you know, through evidence-based theory and practice, to your chosen career field. Consequently, students who complete these degrees typically do so by drawing on the rich experience of their work life and fellow classmates, which can be accomplished more easily from a distance.

Of course, even applied programs necessitate many hours of coursework leading to the final dissertation or doctoral project, along with ongoing advisement and final defense. In the virtual environment that means using all of the same interactive teaching methodologies and tools we employ in any other online degree program. They are simply customized to meet the rigorous requirements of a doctoral degree.

Most of these programs also require time-limited internships and/or clinical practicums, along with some form of regular, short-term campus residencies, which give online students a chance to meet in-person with professors, advisors, and scholar-practitioners in their field, as they continue to explore their research trajectory.

[OnlineEducation.com] One can imagine how online education might appeal to students who prefer to work independently. How much are students attending DUO expected to work with peers? Is group work ever required and, if so, how do students collaborate? Can students track one another’s progress? What can students do if classmates are unresponsive or are not doing their share?

[Dr. Aldridge] While online learning is certainly more effective for those who can work independently, we are always cognizant of our students’ innate need to connect and collaborate with one another, whenever feasible. Or as we say at Drexel, self-paced never means anonymous or isolated, given the many ways our professors facilitate active and authentic interaction, both in and out of the virtual classroom.

In fact, because our online students are, for the most part, already well into their career lives, they have a great deal of diverse professional know-how and practical advice to share, which greatly enhances the overall learning experience. On top of that, Drexel’s online faculty are recognized experts in their field, many of whom combine teaching with use-inspired research and/or real-world practice.

So while our students initially choose Drexel’s online degree programs for their quality and convenience in meeting career advancement goals, they quickly come to understand the value of experientially based teaching and learning that regularly incorporates collaborative experiences like group projects. Not surprisingly, these projects are a bit more difficult to complete from a distance, simply because of time zone differences and conflicting work schedules. But when well-conceived and organized, they offer an excellent conduit for forging professional relationships and personal friendships with fellow classmates.

To be sure, ongoing communication is key to effective group project completion – whether through Skype, email, or over the phone. And online professors are very adept at helping students align their group roles and responsibilities with their individual strengths and weaknesses. There are also strategies in place – such as regular group updates and mandatory peer evaluations – for professors and students alike to use for tracking progress and mediating concerns.