July 20, 2018

Meeting the challenge of online degrees for the professions

 

Tina the Avatar from Drexel University’s nursing program. Tina not only responds to questions asked by students but can also be physically examined and will respond according to how she is being treated.

Chatlani, S. (2018) Navigating online professional degrees – potential and caution, Education Dive, March 21

In previous posts, I have pointed out the challenges of getting online qualifications recognised by professional associations, for instance:

The Chatlani article though shows how some institutions have worked with professional associations to obtain recognition.

Which institutions have received recognition from professional associations?

Chatlani looks at several institutions who have succeeded in getting their online professional degrees recognised. These include:

  • Syracuse University College of Law
  • Western Governors University College of Health Professions
  • Faulkner University’s Masters of Science in Counseling
  • The Santa Barbara & Ventura Colleges of Law

To these institutions I would add a couple of Canadian examples:

Some of these programs are not fully online, but are hybrid, with a good deal of online learning however.

How to get online professional degrees recognized

First, it ain’t easy. It’s no good just trying to convert your on-campus content into an online version. You have to do much more to satisfy professional associations – and quite rightly, in most cases.

The biggest challenge is providing a satisfactory online context for experiential learning: enabling students to apply what they have learned in an online environment that is ‘real’ enough to transfer to an actual workplace. Typical examples would be:

  • use of video, computer simulations, and augmented or virtual reality to teach procedures and/or motor (hands-on) skills
  • use of remote labs/equipment that students can manipulate online
  • ‘virtual’ offices, companies or workplace situations that mirror real companies and their work
  • online development of inter-personal skills through one-on-one online monitoring
  • use of synchronous as well as asynchronous delivery: Syracuse designed their law program so that 50% of each online course will be in real time with students and professors interacting just as they would in a residential program, with intense Socratic dialogue in real time
  • on-campus evaluation of specific skills, such as counselling, even if they are taught online.

In addition to providing appropriate experiential learning, there are general quality issues to be addressed:

  • secure validation of student identity and online assessment;
  • investment in ‘best practice’ online course design, which will involve using learning design and learning technology specialists;
  • opportunity for substantive interaction between faculty and students; 
  • close monitoring of student activities;
  • extensive training of faculty in online teaching.

This is rather a daunting list, even if not all of these requirements apply to all professional training.

Will it be enough?

One has to look to motive here for moving online. One motive is a scarcity of professionals (or more likely, a coming scarcity). This is one major reason for Queen’s University’s Bachelor in Mining Engineering. A shortage of professionals pushes up the costs of professionals and  a shortage of professionals may mean that there are unacceptable delays in court cases (as in Canada), for instance. Offering programs partly or wholly online enables those working or with families to study more flexibly and in the end results in a larger pool of professionals.

Another motive is cost: the cost of traditional, on-campus professional degrees is often so high that many who could benefit from such programs are just unable to afford it. The hope is that online programs can bring down the cost without losing quality.

Chatlani interviewed Christopher Chapman​, CEO of AccessLex Institute, a legal education advocacy group, who argued the hybrid degree option is necessary to make becoming a lawyer more accessible and possibly less expensive:

Truly experimentation in legal education is critical to the long-term future of the field and lawyers. This could allow for the development of better pedagogy and allow for scaling where schools may be able to eventually lower their price point.

However, often professional education does not necessarily scale easily as it may require fairly small class sizes if quality is to be maintained. This is not to say there are no economies of scale: once a simulation or a virtual reality environment is created, it can be used many times with many students, but this often means not only a heavy up-front investment, but also a sophisticated business model that allows for return on investment over several or even many years.

It is worth noting that none of the example institutions above are what might be called elite institutions, who have dominated education for professionals in law, medicine and engineering for many years, and whose alumni are often the ones who set accreditation requirements for the professional associations.

And this is the problem. It benefits existing professionals to limit the number of new professionals by making existing labour scarce. If the people who are responsible for accrediting educational programs for professional recognition benefit by keeping the market restricted and themselves come from elite institutions with no experience of online learning, then online professional programs become a huge risk for the departments planning to offer them and for the students who sign up for them.

The best approach is to ensure the support of the relevant professional associations before investing heavily in such programs. The worst case scenario is to spend lots of money on developing such programs only for students to find that they still cannot get a well paid professional job with their qualification.

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