Online Learning Program Wins National Award

News Story: October 13, 2014

SHUsquare, a Sacred Heart University-built online learning program that promotes connectivity among faculty and students, has won a national education award from the Online Learning Consortium (formerly the Sloan Consortium).

Designed to enliven teaching and learning, SHUsquare is an online community for First-Year Seminar students and faculty to develop important 21st-century skills by sharing ideas, work and resources across various disciplines and between courses. It’s motto—“Keep the Conversation Going”—refers to its intent to encourage autonomous learning beyond the traditional classroom. The program won the Online Learning Consortium award in the “Effective Practice” category.

“It won because it’s quite unique in a first-year program to have this kind of formal process for networked learning,” says Jaya Kannan, SHU’s director of the Office of Digital Learning.

Kannan says SHUsquare represents the kind of educational opportunity that aligns perfectly with the goals of a liberal arts university. “In an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum, the focus on critical thinking is crucial to achieving academic excellence,” she says. “SHUsquare is a very original and pedagogically sound way to go beyond the traditional approach of just staying within courses, expanding students’ minds to make meaningful connections between disciplines.”

The program began with a pilot in the 2012-13 academic year and quickly evolved into a networked community of nearly 20 seminars. SHUsquare now has over 50 pages of content, including videos, discussion groups and multi-modal projects, and is continuing to grow each semester.

According to Marie Hulme, director of SHUsquare and a professor of English, the program was developed through a collaboration of representatives from a large swath of the Sacred Heart community—from professors in various disciplines, to computer science and technical staff and beyond. The idea for the program was originally conceived by Seamus Carey, former dean of the University’s College of Arts and Sciences, who now serves as president of Transylvania University in Kentucky.

“It has been a privilege to implement the idea for an online space where our faculty and students can share ideas across disciplines,” Hulme says. “SHUsquare was, and continues to be, a collaborative effort on the part of the faculty, staff and students who contribute time, talent and content to the site. From its beginnings as an idea for harnessing social media for academic purposes, SHUsquare has provided a platform for encouraging multi-discipline and multi-modal teaching and learning within a networked community of thinkers, writers and communicators. It provides our students with an authentic audience as digital writers, which is an important pedagogical tool for writing-intensive courses. It is an example of the best of the Sacred Heart community working together to foster a student-centered environment of learning.”

Among others, Hulme credits members of the former dean’s task force for a virtual public square project, particularly Michelle Loris, associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and professor of English and psychology; Gerald Reid, associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, director of the Center for Irish Cultural Studies and professor of sociology; Gary Rose, professor and chair of the Department of Government, Politics and Global Studies; and Anita August, director of writing programs and assistant professor of English. Hulme says all were early adopters of the project in their own curricula and inspired other First-Year Seminar professors to use the program to engage students in innovative and varied ways.

Hulme also names Nancy Boudreau, director of Web Content Management; Tom Naclerio, digital media specialist; Robert Tullonge, director of Academic Computing; and Adrianna Dattoli, manager, Instructional Tech and Media—all of whom provided essential technical support. Hulme additionally notes that the faculty and staff of the departments of Media Studies (especially James Castonguay, professor and director of  the master’s in communication program; and Greg Golda, clinical instructor of communication and media studies) and Computer Science (especially Frances Grodzinsky, professor of computer science and information technology; and Robert McCloud, associate professor of computer science and information technology) were critical in the development of the program.

In addition, a student majoring in senior media studies and graphic design, Chris Minardi, contributed greatly in sharing his skills and dedication to developing and supporting the site these past two years. “Chris has been the students’ voice in this process,” said Hulme. “This award is a recognition of the collaborative effort of dedicated educators who were willing to embrace new pedagogy in the interest of engaging their students. They are all, truly, pioneers."

According to its website, the Online Learning Consortium is “the leading professional organization devoted to advancing the quality of online learning worldwide. The member-sustained organization offers an extensive set of resources for professional development and institutional advancement of online learning, including original research, leading-edge instruction, best-practice publications, community-driven conferences and expert guidance. OLC members include educators, administrators, trainers and other online learning professionals, as well as educational institutions, professional societies and corporate enterprises.”