Online public health degree draws student skepticism

After the School of Public Health and Health Services unveiled a fully online graduate program in late October, Jessica Bress and Sophia Tripoli became suspicious.

The public health master’s students feared the program – propped up by a likely multimillion-dollar investment by an education technology company – would “water down” their degrees by growing the school’s enrollment by up to 70 percent.

So they posted nearly 1,000 flyers in Ross Hall and in 2175 K St. warning of the program, called MPH@GW, that they believed would have more relaxed admissions standards. They are also leading a group that will petition the school this month to formally differentiate the online program from the face-to-face program on students’ diplomas.

“We don’t want to shut it down. We just want to increase [the] transparency of the process and get more students involved,” Tripoli, who is in the school’s health policy track, said. “We want the official documents to denote that coursework was done online.”

Other students jumped on board after Bress and Tripoli championed their concerns by creating a Facebook group that has so far drawn 80 likes.

School officials say the accredited program will adhere to strict academic and admissions standards and added that it was born out of a faculty-led strategic planning process. Dean Lynn Goldman hosted town halls over the past few months outlining how the program would help the school grow and remain rigorous as it moves into its $75 million building in 2014.

The program is funded partially by 2U, an education startup led by alumnus Chip Paucek. The company has raised about $100 million in venture capital in the last few years, teaming up with elite schools like Georgetown University and the University of North Carolina to launch online programs in a bevy of fields.

The company helps produce sleek, interactive videos that combine live online class meetings led by regular professors with taped lectures and audio-including PowerPoints.

Program director Doug Evans, a professor of prevention and community health, declined to sit for an interview and deferred to a spokeswoman.

Stacey DiLorenzo, the school’s communications director, said in an email that the school has actively sought out student opinions in the program and has built regular faculty governance into its development. For instance, she said the school formed an advisory committee for the program’s admissions that includes two students.

The program application requires students to submit GRE scores, just like the traditional program. The first cohort will start in June and draw about 30 students, DiLorenzo said. Those students never have to come to campus, unlike GW’s hybrid online programs.

DiLorenzo did not return a request for comment confirming that the school could eventually enroll up to 700 online students. The online degree will cost students $56,150 for 45 credits – the same price as one earned face-to-face.

The schism represents some of the first student opposition to the University’s investments in online education. Many of GW’s online graduate degrees have earned high rankings over the past two years by U.S. News & World Report as the University has funneled resources and created staff positions devoted to online learning.

By building its online base, the University not only keeps pace with a rapidly changing higher education landscape, but pulls in tuition dollars to sidestep the city-imposed enrollment cap that restricts how many students can study on campus.

Bress and Tripoli argued that students were caught off guard by the program’s announcement in late October. They said the school kept it under wraps because of a non-disclosure agreement with 2U.

“The general feeling was that there was a bombshell dropped about this program,” Tripoli said.

The school also brought in a director of online learning to help bring the quality of traditional courses to the online program.

Isabela Lessa, a master’s of public health student, said students are still skeptical about education quality.

“I strongly believe that the online and on-campus programs cannot possibly be equivalent, and so I – and many others – want there to be a distinction between the two degrees on the diploma given by the University,” she said.

Paula Lantz, a member of the University’s Faculty Senate and the chair of the health policy department, said faculty approved of the school’s turn toward online learning.

“In the field of public health, we need to grow,” she said. “We are seeing huge increases with the people who need the kind of training we give our students. Going online is just smart. It’s not going to water down what our students get here. I just think it’ll strengthen it.”

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