It happened in the middle of October, when U.S. News and World Report named Davenport University as having one of the nation’s top e-learning programs for higher education in business.
The magazine listed only 38 schools in its elite field, and Davenport was only one of three state-based universities to be so honored.
“We were just thrilled,” said Kate Noone, vice president of Davenport University Online, of the news. “We’ve worked very hard on developing a top-notch program and it was nice to be recognized.”
Noone said the magazine’s editors examined hundreds of online programs before making their selections, but didn’t explain to Davenport officials exactly why theirs stood among the country’s best.
“They never talk publicly about their criteria,” she said. “They have a tendency to stay away from doing that a little bit because once they make their criteria clear, people can debate points.”
Those involved with the online program, however, feel they have some pretty good ideas of why theirs was chosen.
“One of the strengths of our online MBA is that it is modeled after our on-campus program,” said Fouad AlNajjar, dean of the Sneden Graduate School at Davenport.
AlNajjar pointed out that following the on-campus model keeps the online classes small as well, usually limited to about 15 students, which allows for plenty of interaction between professors and students. Then there is the program itself.
“Our faculty drives the curriculum, and we deliver a practical approach to business education — what you learn today, you can apply on the job tomorrow,” said AlNajjar.
Davenport began offering its virtual classroom in January 1999, starting with only 20 courses. Today the university has nearly 200 online courses that lead to 15 undergraduate degrees and the multiple specialties found in the MBA program.
“We started out in our first session, at the undergraduate level, with 400 students taking classes. We will service somewhere around 7,000 students this year,” said Noone.
“In the MBA program, our first pilot course was offered in the fall of ’99. It had one section and we had five students in it. This session we have about 130 students in the program. So the growth has been very strong.”
Noone said retired Chancellor Donald Maine led the movement to go virtual.
“Don was really the catalyst for getting the program off the ground.
“What Don did, which I think was really very wise, was he set aside the online program as sort of an incubator so it could develop in a very rapid type of way,” said Noone, who has been at Davenport for eight years.
“Because of that, we have gone in three years from basically nothing to offering 160 courses at the undergraduate level and 28 courses at the graduate level.”
Noone said the online classes are the same as those offered on-campus, as are the course objectives and outcomes, and are not to be confused with correspondence courses.
The only difference between the virtual and the on-campus is that a class needs to be reformatted for online instead of classroom presentation.
Davenport does that with Blackboard, an e-learning software package that also adds multi-media capabilities, such as interactive CD-ROMs, to the classes.
“Our emphasis is on interaction between students and the faculty. We have participation requirements.
“Students need to log on between five and seven times a week. So it’s a continuous thing. It’s not just a class where someone learns econ between 6 and 9 on Tuesday nights,” said Noone.
“The building of a community within a course has been the key to our success. We have very high student satisfaction and retention with this product.”
Noone doesn’t view the Internet as an equalizer for smaller schools when they compete with big universities for students. But she did see electronic learning as a way for Davenport to reach more potential students.
“Traditionally, there is probably a given radius that a student is willing to drive to a campus. In the e-learning environment, that sort of melts away and students can come from anywhere,” she said.
“Online classes afford me the opportunity and freedom of completing my degree at an easier pace without the havoc of driving to campus twice a week. It’s also allowing me to complete my degree requirements earlier,” added Alice Thomas-Mack, an MBA student from Taylor.
Noone said the average Davenport MBA student is a working professional between the ages of 28 and 45. A few learn strictly online, but most also take some on-campus courses.
“We have our niche, which is practical business education that is very focused on applied learning as opposed to a theory-based program,” she added. “And a niche doesn’t go away.”
In addition to Davenport, the other state-based schools named by U.S. News and World Report were the Dearborn and Flint campuses of the University of Michigan. The magazine also cited the University of Phoenix, which has a campus in Walker.
Davenport has 24 campuses and is the largest private business university in Michigan and Northern Indiana. Noone said they will increase the specialty areas of its MBA program next month by adding accounting and health care management to its entrepreneurial and strategic management curriculums.
“So we’re working on program development,” she said. “And we’re constantly looking at new and innovative technologies that help us deliver our courses.”