October Issue: Leadership & Learning—Virtual Classrooms

The online revolution is remaking education.

By Amanda Marsh, Contributing Writer

A faculty member teaches an online class at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.
A faculty member teaches an online class at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.

As undergraduate and graduate real estate programs get under way this fall, students can pick from a full menu of online learning for degree programs, certificate courses and non-credit offerings. As a sampling of these programs shows, top universities are responding to the industry’s fast-changing needs by introducing a steady stream of innovative tools.

Synced Up at Schack
At the Schack Institute of Real Estate, part of New York University’s School of Professional Studies (NYUSPS), students can earn master’s degrees or graduate certificates in real estate and construction management, as well as a master’s degree in real estate development. The first six courses of the graduate real estate certificate are offered online and can also be counted toward M.S. requirements, explained Rosemary Scanlon, NYU Schack’s divisional dean. All six classes for the construction management certificate are expected to be available in a year.

“The application and admissions process is the same, but if the student is out of town or can’t get to New York right away, they can start the first six classes online—and it’s the same professors,” she said. “Each class is taped, so if you get to week six and you want to review week two’s lesson…you can.” Scanlon cited the example of a recent graduate who took four courses online while on assignment in Colombia before returning to finish the program. Online courses are also suited to suburban professionals who have logistical difficulties attending an evening class in the city, she noted.

For more than a decade, NYUSPS has offered synchronous online courses, noted Robert Morgenstern, director of Schack’s non-credit programs. Students would log in at 6:00 p.m. EST, no matter where they lived. By this fall, the number of courses that are either asynchronous, or combine in-person and online elements, will reach 100. In response to student feedback, the school plans to shift toward courses that take a blended approach.

Interaction with faculty is critical, Morgenstern pointed out: “Otherwise, the course is dead.” In addition to an audio lesson, students can communicate and network with classmates and faculty on discussion boards. Many graduate courses use videoconferencing to link students and faculty. “There is a sense of community, so those who can’t meet everyone in person don’t feel left out,” Scanlon explained. To maintain quality, instructors meet with a curriculum coordinator to make sure that online offerings are identical to what’s available in the classroom. “PowerPoint presentations have to be spot-on, and you need good training for faculty,” Morgenstern adds. “You need consistency and community; students are not tolerant of glitches.”

ASU Goes All In
Among Arizona State University’s online offerings is a M.S. in construction management, which encompasses both construction and facilities management. The typical student is a 30-ish built-environment professional with middle management or junior executive experience, said Kenneth Sullivan, an associate professor at ASU’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment in Tempe, Ariz.

Improved capture technology, better engagement with students through social media and more robust assessment options have all helped boost online learning. Also crucial: faculty interaction, whether through phone, Skype or Google Hangouts, Sullivan noted. “This is critical for online learning, as historically, online learning can be self-paced and often results in students falling behind,” he said.

For instance, the program’s new building has self-track cameras, multiple digital interfaces, plus upgraded production technology. “So an in-person class can be captured and produced into an online product simultaneously,” he explained. He predicts that universities will eventually employ technologies like holograms, 3-D printing, 3-D imaging, virtual classrooms and a proliferation of online and in-person hybrids with “lab sections” in major metro areas.

“I foresee online learning becoming an education-research hybrid where students across the globe work with faculty to simultaneously learn new knowledge and apply that knowledge to solving real-time problems at their organizations,” he said.

Stout’s Mix of Old & New
The University of Wisconsin-Stout is one of the few schools that offer a B.S. in Property Management focusing on both multifamily and commercial. Program director Fred Prassas has received many inquiries about the program—and about half are students interested in online courses. Although the degree must be earned on site, Stout is increasingly incorporating online learning into its curriculum. Seattle-based Weidner Apartment Homes has provided a generous grant to remodel a classroom into an interactive, collaborative learning space.

Each table has a digital whiteboard that allows students to work individually or simultaneously and show their work on the room’s main screen or via the Internet. “This has given us the capability to interact with students joining from a distance or connecting with guest lecturers,” Prassas said. “So I can teach lessons, even when I’m out of town. It is also helpful to us in migrating to more online classes.”

Right now, most classes are a mix of on-the-ground learning and asynchronous online lessons; he noted that the goal is to have a completely online offering within a year.
Many students serve internships or travel to industry events, such as those hosted by the Institute of Real Estate Management. The school has a special partnership with the organization, for which Prassas has served as a former national president. An expanded online capacity will allow students access to these opportunities while still attending class.

Cornell Looks Forward
Jan deRoos, the HVS professor of hotel finance and real estate at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, offers his annual online hotel management course to some 50 undergraduate and graduate students. (It came about as a replacement for his face-to-face course when he went on sabbatical in 2014.) While this is the only online degree course offered for the hospitality school, there is a six-course hospitality series through eCornell, the school’s online certificate program. The courses, which take 10 hours each, cover topics such as investment management, asset management, forecasting, risk management and deal structuring.

However, deRoos reported that many of his colleagues will be proposing courses to bring online, especially now that Elizabeth Garrett has taken the helm as Cornell’s new president. She was previously provost at the University of Southern California, which greatly expanded online offerings on her watch. The strategy, he noted, will be around a set of foundational courses and then an advanced course. For one, its MOOC (massive open online course) introduction to global hospitality class from last year garnered interest from 14,000 prospective students, and 700 completed the course with a certificate—that, deRoos said, will be turned into one of the graduate introductory courses.

While students love the 24/7 aspect of an online-only course, the completion rate was lower than expected, deRoos explained. As a result, he switched to a blended offering, which added a weekly seminar-style class featuring a speaker or other enrichment. Students reacted more positively to the blended course, as in-person elements helped them contextualize what they learned.

Where Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration’s online offerings will go next remains to be seen, deRoos noted, but there has been demand from students to continue their coursework while taking a semester abroad or taking on a non-local internship.
In deRoos’ view, the school has three main issues to tackle: Institutional inertia, as many of his colleagues feel threatened by technology (of the faculty of 60, only about 15 are engaged online); maintaining the same rigor, grading, instruction and participation as conventional courses to ensure that online offerings don’t hurt the school’s accreditation; and addressing security, legal and administrative concerns.

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