Norwich University: Taking Action Learning to the Next Level

By Ruth Stilwell and Bill Powers

As Norwich University prepares to celebrate its 200th year, its programs are anything but old. The College of Graduate and Continuing Studies (CGCS) embraces proactive methodologies to deliver intense, immersive and interactive education through online curricula. The programs conclude with a residency week where students have exciting and challenging opportunities to participate in peer collaboration and workshops that amplify lessons attained throughout their graduate journey.

In 2018, CGCS will host the Action Learning/Action Research (ALARA) World Congress, a global event that builds on a tradition of dynamic activities that amplify critical thinking and applied action opportunities and meet the ever-changing demands of the 21st Century public administrator. Students participate in case study workshops ranging from culture and ethics to coalition building to fiscal administration. In 2017, CGCS hosted its first annual Cyber Security Summit, which showcased a computer emergency response team and featured cyber law and critical infrastructure experts who offered workshops and discussions on key cyber analysis topics that government and industry face.

In response to changing public administration dynamics, Norwich University has announced a dual program that will allow students to earn an MPA and Master of Science in Information Security Assurance congruently. This dual-program track recognizes cyber security as a critical element of our interdisciplinary field. Today’s practitioner-scholar requires a comprehensive understanding of how cyber security must be considered in the development and delivery of public services. Students will benefit from the established quality and reputation of Norwich’s Master of Science in Information Security Assurance program, ranked as one of the top 10 U.S. cyber security graduate programs and recognized as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education by the National Security Agency) and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, plus a Center of Digital Forensics Academic Excellence by the Defense Cyber Crime Center.  

Essential to the online MPA program, students engage in peer-to-peer collaboration that employs concepts of action learning and action research (AL/AR). When they arrive for residency week prior to graduation, they may never have met personally, but already have gained much from professional experience and established relationships. The AL/AR methodology cultivates a rich learning environment that allows case studies to be largely student driven, using working teams to critically analyze and develop materials on assigned topics. Students demonstrate their learning in the degree program through targeted tasks that provide them the opportunity to demonstrate teamwork and leadership. The format is uniquely suited to the MPA degree and emphasizes the skills developed as a practitioner-scholar. CGCS recognizes that effective public administration requires interaction at all levels; diverse perspectives, priorities and competing interests are the stanchion of the effective public administrator. Individual research projects further accentuate learning while the group case studies enable students to demonstrate the attained acumen.  

Through the residency week activities, Norwich University supplements online education with a traditional, on-campus experience. The learning process continues up to the graduation ceremony and uses the “in-person” time to fortify the skills and relationships developed online. Whether it is attending the ALARA World Congress, the Cyber Security Summit or case study workshops, residency week engages the participants not as a student, but as an active participant in the public administration community.  

The Norwich University mantra—Expect Challenge. Achieve Distinction—is more than a slogan. It is the cornerstone of the CGCS teaching style and student expectation. Challenged, its students have achieved distinction in leadership roles at all levels of government: federal, state, local and municipal, as well as nonprofit. We are building tomorrow’s fire/police chiefs, emergency managers, administrators, leaders, managers and executives today. Their success is a testament that Norwich’s curricula have prepared them for the challenges ahead.

Ruth Stilwell, adjunct professor at Norwich University and executive director of Aerospace Policy Solutions LLC, is one of the leading authorities on integrated space and aviation policy and governance. A 25-year air traffic controller, experienced labor leader and policy expert, Stilwell has conducted research that has influenced key U.S. legislation and been required reading for administration officials. Her expertise spans a wide range of space and aviation, public safety, human factor, administration, financing and industry reform topics. She can be reached at

Bill Powers, a career federal employee for a Cabinet-level department, manages policy that builds and promotes a culture of preparedness among the federal workforce and enables individual and organizational readiness and continuity. Powers served as professional staff member to Senator Susan Collins, for whom he provided key guidance on implementation of a comprehensive national security strategy to secure the United States from terrorist attacks and response to natural disasters. He co-authored the bicameral- and bi-partisan-sponsored United States Fire Administration Reauthorization Act of 2008. He can be reached at

This article originally was published in the Summer 2017 edition of PA TIMES magazine. Click here to view our magazine archives and find the edition.