UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students enrolled in one of two new online Penn State World Campus courses, created in collaboration between the Penn State School of International Affairs (SIA) and the Penn State Homeland Security Program, led by the Penn State Harrisburg School of Public Affairs, have the unique opportunity to learn the intricacies of international relations from two former U.S. ambassadors with a combined 60 years of diplomatic experience — without ever having to leave the house.
“Entering the world of online education, our number one priority was to ensure that our online courses reflect School of International Affairs values and emulate the terrific residential experience as much as possible,” said Scott Gartner, SIA director and professor of international affairs. “That means providing courses that are innovative, interactive, engaging, and taught by high-quality faculty who are student-focused and passionate about teaching.”
To teach its first two online courses, SIA tapped two of its distinguished professors: Ambassador Dennis Jett, a founding SIA faculty member who served as U.S. ambassador to Mozambique (1993-1996) and Peru (1996-1999) as part of a 28-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service; and Ambassador Joseph DeThomas, SIA professor of practice who spent more than 30 years with the U.S. Department of State, including as ambassador to Estonia (2001-2004).
DeThomas is wrapping up the first semester teaching “Weapons of Mass Destruction and International Security” (INTAF 817) online, which explores how nuclear weapons revolutionized thinking about war and peace among major powers and how they can become a primary focus of international diplomacy.
In spring 2020, Jett will teach “The Role of Intelligence in International Relations” (INTAF 812), which examines how governments gather intelligence, how it is analyzed, and what impact it has on policy makers.
A 'trailblazing collaboration'
Developed in partnership with the Penn State Harrisburg Center for Teaching Excellence, both courses are open to all Penn State World Campus graduate students.
“We are excited to have the School of International Affairs as a cooperating partner in the online intercollege Master of Professional Studies in Homeland Security (iMPS-HLS) program,” said Alexander Siedschlag, interim director of the Penn State Harrisburg School of Public Affairs and chair of the iMPS-HLS program. “This trailblazing collaboration in particular strengthens the International Track in our program, where we prepare students for a global career as they learn to understand differences and commonalities between homeland, national and international security, as well as the characteristics of homeland security in a global context and an all-hazards threat environment.”
One of the main benefits of online courses is that they can reach students who, for various reasons, are unable to attend in-person classes. DeThomas said he noticed the difference right away.
“The composition of the student body is different,” DeThomas said, comparing his first experience teaching an online course to a typical residential program. “With this course, I’m teaching more people who have families, full-time jobs, are in the military — their priorities, time restraints, and needs are not the same as a typical, residential graduate student.”
And while online courses undoubtedly offer more flexibility, Gartner stressed that it is important that they not sacrifice quality. It’s why he called on the ambassadors, with their distinguished status and substantial real-world experience, to create and teach the courses.
For their part, DeThomas and Jett have deployed numerous strategies to ensure that their online courses are engaging and rich in content, such as the use of video lectures, inviting special guest speakers, including more visual media in course modules, and facilitating structured online interaction via comment and discussion boards. As a result of these innovations, the classes allow students extensive contact and interaction with these world renowned and highly experienced international affairs experts.
While Jett will have to wait for the spring to gauge the success of his approach, DeThomas said he was pleased with what he’s seen in his course — and in some cases, pleasantly surprised.
“We all know the horror stories of online comment boards, and so I was expecting a lot of negative interactions,” he said. “But instead what I got were people whose discussions were far more civilized — in fact, I had to encourage my students to disagree more often. In a lot of ways this matches what I’ve experienced in classroom settings.”
A 'close connection to incredible global leaders'
Of course, there will always be differences between in-classroom and online learning — not just for students, but for the professors, too.
Jett said that one of the biggest differences in developing an online course is that much more of the course-preparation workload takes place well before the course begins. Both professors agreed that it took more time to prepare an online course compared to residential, in part because you lose all flexibility and must have everything mapped out ahead of time.
“It forces you to be a lot more precise about what you’re going to do each week,” Jett said.
DeThomas added that teaching an online course for the first time can be disorienting because it alters your sense of time and timelines, but ultimately the experience is beneficial.
“If you’re an instructor, teaching an online course is a great opportunity to see your subject matter from a different angle and communicate it in a different way,” he said. “My teaching will improve one hundred percent because of all the time and preparation that went into creating this [online] course.”
DeThomas and Jett will continue teaching the two courses, once per year online and once per year in-person, through SIA’s Master of International Affairs program.
“These courses provide World Campus students unusually close connection to incredible global leaders and dedicated instructors,” said Gartner, who added, “they also demonstrate our terrific and unique collaboration with the Homeland Security Program.”
Given the shifting educational landscape, a more robust online presence may be on the horizon for the School of International Affairs.
“This is an exciting new area for SIA,” Jett said, “that opens up new possibilities and provides greater accessibility for students.”