These days, education is swinging from intimate in-person seminars to massive online open courses. Georgetown University’s come up with something in between.

The school’s master of science in finance (MSF) program, which launched at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business in 2014, uses what faculty call a “blended classroom” to teach students either in-person and online — or both. The result is a program with many of the community and networking aspects of a traditional classroom, but one that students can access from anywhere.

“We started utterly from scratch,” says Allan Eberhart, a finance professor who leads the program. He and colleagues started planning for it in early 2012. “We never had the MSF here before. It’s an entirely new program and we certainly had never done anything like this, technology-wise.”

The two-year program — which includes classes like advanced corporate valuation, financial markets and principled financial leadership — appeals not only to students who live outside of D.C., but also locals who are working full time. “I was able to travel for work when needed, and still keep up with my classwork,” says 24-year-old Tiffany Watson, who, like about a third of the MSF students, lives in the D.C. area.

Watson was a business analyst for Compass Group, a food and support services company, when she joined the MSF program’s very first class of 31 students in January 2014. Subsequent classes kicked off in August 2014 and August 2015, and the program is now up to 79 students.

“I was trying to push my career to the next level,” she says. “The Georgetown opportunity kind of fit perfectly.”

Since graduating from the program earlier this year, Watson has transferred to a new role as a senior business analyst at E15, an internal data analytics consulting arm within Compass.

Anytime, anywhere
Each week, students learn some of the material through a series of recorded, professor-led presentations that they can watch at any time. These videos, dubbed “anytime media,” run about 10 minutes each and incorporate animation to help explain the difficult concepts.

The professors “are talking to you just like they’d be talking to you in a classroom,” Eberhart says.
With one crucial difference, of course: “It was really nice to be able to pause the professor,” when taking notes, Watson says. “Because in a real classroom setting you can’t.”

Each video comes with a transcript, in which students can search for keywords and quickly jump to a part of the video they want to watch again. “You could actually click on a word and it would take you to that point in the video,” Watson says. “It helped to have the definition right there so I could copy and paste it.”

But professors admit they had a learning curve when it came to teaching a camera instead of a class.

“You’d tell a joke, and the camera crew would be usually gracious enough to laugh,” says Eberhart, who stars in a few of the videos. “You weren’t getting the feedback you do when you’re looking at people.”

From near and far
While the faculty borrowed the idea of at-your-own-pace videos from the latest trends in online learning, they also kept an old-school idea: a required weekly seminar.

All students attend one live session a week — but they don’t have to be on campus to do it.

The live session takes place in a specially designed classroom that has three rows of seating, plus a giant screen on the back wall to show the faces of students who are video conferencing into class. The layout has prompted professors to dub it “The Brady Bunch screen.”

“There are three rows of desks and the Brady Bunch screen is like a fourth row,” Eberhart says. While the classroom seats about 18, “we can have easily 40 people on the screen,” he says.

The idea is to interact with the students on the screen as easily as with students in the room.

Students who are logging in from afar see the professor or the professor’s slides on their computer screen. If a student has a question, the professor can make him or her appear on everyone’s screens.

“I can call on Maurice in Dubai, and Maurice is brought up to the screen and — boom — Maurice and I are talking,” Eberhart says.

Another newfangled feature lets the professors poll the students online during class, and a chat feature lets students discuss concepts with one another without interrupting the whole class.

Even local students often choose to attend the live class remotely. “The flexibility was key for me,” Watson says.

Students say the interaction creates a sense of community ­— even among those who aren’t on campus.

“We really built a network,” Watson says. “Seeing your classmates on the camera once a week really helped with that.”

Testing for all students is done online. Software records video of students as they take the test, and records their Internet use. “They know they can’t talk with anyone, they know they can’t surf the Web,” Eberhart says.

The video of each student is reviewed to prevent cheating.

“It really does work,” he says. “It works better than on-site, and we don’t have to have an army of proctors.”

All together now
After seeing each other on screen, students spend a week consulting on a real-world problem together, usually in a foreign locale, as their capstone project.

“We have actual consulting projects at firms overseas that the students work on for six weeks [remotely], and then the students travel to the country and work with the clients,” Eberhart says.

Watson’s class headed to Johannesburg to work on projects for Barclays, Coca-Cola and Cummins.
In addition to the professional experience, “It was a great bonding time for us,” Watson says.

Faculty say Georgetown’s MSF program could be how classrooms incorporate technology in the future.
“We really are convinced it’s a template,” Eberhart says.