Matt Cooper shows off one of Thomas Edison State University’s conference rooms. The view is of West State Street.
Matt Cooper shows off one of Thomas Edison State University’s conference rooms. The view is of West State Street.

There are no classes held in the corner building at 102 West State Street. Yet in many ways it is the heart of Thomas Edison State University.

The Center for Learning and Technology is home to a sort of brain trust — the course development team. It is where associate provost Matt Cooper and his “imagineers” develop and create the courses offered, and where they take course concepts through a rigorous process for delivery to the “self-directed” adult learners who form the core of the institution’s student body.

The building down the street from the state office complex at the intersection of Barrack Street is a revitalized space that includes two conference rooms with views of the university’s landmark Kelsey Building. It contains a media production studio and 23 offices and workstations. The three-story, 12,500-square-foot center opened for business about a year ago.

Trentonians who walk by are likely oblivious to the activity within the space: development of some 60 to 70 new courses each year, and the revision of some of the 640 courses annually. “We constantly experiment with new technologies for our students, and we pride ourselves on finding creative solutions to very difficult problems that online learners face,” says Cooper.

The school, which offers only courses online to nontraditional college age students, was ahead of its time in 1972 as a distance learning mecca and early adopter of online education. Nearly half a century later, as online courses are common in the higher education landscape, Cooper and his team are making sure the courses stay relevant and are geared to the needs of current students.

When other institutions left for greener locations, TESU has been downtown since 1979, and is committed to staying in the Trenton business district. The $2.3 million Center for Learning and Technology is part of a recent expansion which includes the Kelsey Building, the Townhouse Complex, and Kuser Mansion, all on West State Street. The Academic Center and Canal Banks Building are located on West Hanover Street. TESU, now considered a university rather than a college (see story, page 2), is building a nursing school next to the Kuser Mansion in the former Glen Cairn Arms apartments.

At the Center for Learning and Technology, a new media production studio plays a leading role in adding interactive, multimedia technology to more courses, according to Cooper, the leader of the course development team. They are implementing “advanced object-oriented simulations” — learning experiences that help demonstrate complex concepts and theories covered in courses. For example, virtual clinical simulations are now featured in four nursing courses for both undergraduate and graduate students. A learner can act as a nurse performing an evaluation on a patient. Or a student can act as a board member of a nonprofit organization and wrestle with business decisions.

The center houses the teams that collaborate on course development projects, “All courses, from soup to nuts,” says Cooper. The staff of 25 keeps in mind how adults learn, which is different from traditional age students.

Cooper’s own background is in philosophy and religion, but he always had a flair for the technical. The son of a retired machinist and mom who worked in the home, he intended to teach. He received an undergraduate degree from Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Ohio, and while getting his master’s degree in Kansas City, became an instructional designer at Grantham University. He has been at TESU for almost eight years.

“We all have different backgrounds in the CLT, as editors, teachers, library science specialists, and academics. It’s a great advantage having different perspectives,” he says, noting that several administrators are TESU graduates or graduate students.

The online courses have come a long way from the early correspondence style courses, completed by snail mail, and later by E-mail. Today, Cooper says, “the biggest change is not in online learning platform but in how courses are developed.”

The team of instructional designers acts as project managers, curriculum designers, and pedagogy experts on all course projects. There are assessment development specialists — “resident experts on how we assess a student’s learning and ensure that a student has achieved the appropriate learning outcomes that the course is designed to teach,” says Cooper. A team of instructional technologists assists with creating course-specific videos and investigates various technologies like simulations and learning activities.

An instructional services team ensures that all courses are prepped and ready for delivery each semester. “These units all function collaboratively around all of our course design projects and they operate within the CLT building,” says Cooper. “We also work with mentors, who act as our subject matter experts, from all over the country.”

The teams use collaborative technologies, like Google Apps, live streaming video, and collaborative project sites to work with mentors on developing courses.” Mentor-consultants, experts in their fields, support the drafting of a syllabus.

The topics are decided by evaluating the needs in the marketplace in collaboration with the schools within the university. In some cases, there are partnerships with a company whose officials see a need for a specific degree. “One need might be a cyber security bachelor’s program, or business communications program,” Cooper explained.

After basic course outlining, Phase 2 is the execution of the blueprint, which can include course-based videos. Support specialists go over what books and course materials are needed. The entire process takes about three months. Innovative delivery tools like wiki, video assignments, reflection via discussion board, are all on the table. The biggest area of growth is in-house videos created by the instructional technology team in a small studio in the building.

What about adults who have not been able to keep up with technological advances? “We keep the burden of technology low,” says Cooper. “If you have an Internet connection you can do well. Also courses are mobile friendly. In designing courses, we want to design courses so that technology empowers students rather than acts as an obstacle. We keep the textbook cost low, and try to coordinate with the public library.”

The content-first approach is more visual. “Ten years ago we sent out VHS cassettes. But people have no time to watch an online video in one sitting. Assignments are built around engagement and collaboration. We want to make the online learning experience for students as engaging and memorable as possible. We try to accomplish this through a variety of means, including virtual simulations, labs, and group/social activities.”

Students can post their own videos rather than participating through written responses. Some activities empower students to collaborate on classroom Wiki articles, or create and critique other students’ blog posts. “We launched a portfolio tool for students to compile their work as they complete their degree program so students can share their work with potential employers in the future,” he says.

What’s in it for Trenton residents? Trenton residents may not know that “they can access online programs that work around their busy schedules, and remove the barriers of time and location,” says Cooper. “We also enable students to earn credit for professional and military training and for what they already know through prior learning assessment. This includes credit-by-exam programs and portfolio assessment, which allow students to demonstrate college-level knowledge that has been acquired outside the traditional classroom. “

They can take advantage of an accelerated bachelor of science nursing program, the only classroom-based program. It is a second degree program for those who possess a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, “an intense, 12-month program where students take both online and classroom courses at TESU and complete clinical experiences at Capital Health.”

Says Cooper: “Students come to us in all stages of education.” While residents may not be going inside the building, they can benefit from what happens inside it.

Thomas Edison State University, 111 West State Street, Trenton. For more information, call (888) 442-8372 or visit tesu.edu.