When it comes to the future of learning, a debate rages within higher education circles over the question of whether certain types of curriculum can be scaled through digital technologies, as an alternative to the traditional residential classroom setting. A number of institutions already have invested in online bachelor’s and master’s degree programs — and now, there has emerged a number of professional degree programs online.
The questions surrounding this trend are largely the same as with other iterations of the cyber classroom, but there’s something different about this type of education that begs this question: Does earning a professional credential in an online environment offer students the quality education they need to be considered expert practitioners in their fields, especially when the experiential learning component is reduced?
Syracuse University College of Law is pioneering one of the nation’s hybrid J.D. programs, available for enrollment in 2019, and others are looking into the potential advantages of this type of offering, particularly as the post-secondary student body grows in non-traditional, mid-career adults seeking credentials from flexible programs.
At least when it comes to the legal profession, Christopher Chapman, CEO of AccessLex Institute, a legal education advocacy group, says 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," said Chapman. "This could allow for the development of better pedagogy and allow for scaling where schools may be able to eventually lower their price point."
Despite the potential benefits, however, there are challenges to scaling such programs effectively. Here, we explore how several institutions have or are trying to deliver online professional degrees, as well as the challenges they've overcome to make the transition from residential to online programs effective.
When pedagogy informs design, learning experience is enhanced
Syracuse decided to create an online counterpart of its on-the-ground law program because it wanted to expand the opportunity to greater swaths of students who couldn't make it to the classroom, said Nina Kohn, associate dean for research at the Syracuse University College of Law and one of the professors leading the development of the institution's hybrid J.D. program.
But, Kohn said, that as she and the team of instructors were designing the courses, they knew they needed to preserve the Socratic method, or process of dialogue. Accordingly, the program was intentionally designed around this pedagogical foundation, in order to offer students the same high-quality educational experience they would have in a fully in-person program.
"The way we designed our program is that 50% of each online course will be in real time with students and professors interacting just as they would in our residential program. So when I’m teaching the first-year course, I will be able to see all the students in my class on the my screen and have that intense Socratic dialogue in real time," she said. "In fact, it might even be more intense than in a residential classroom because of the small class size, which allows me me to call on every student every day — which is much more difficult in larger face-to-face classes."
But, of course, this type of degree still requires that students gain real-time experience, Kohn said, which is why only 70% of the classes are online and students gain the rest of their credits by participating in externships and coming to campus for skill development.
Similarly, Jan Jones-Schenk, Western Governor's University's academic vice president for the College of Health Professions, said the institution strategically designed its professional pre-licensure baccalaureate nursing degree, which prepares nursing students to take the licensing exam, with the experiential component in mind — by taking advantage of technological innovations in virtual reality.
"This degree requires upwards of 800 hours of clinical time. By designing an entirely unique clinical model, we've supplemented that clinical time with high-fidelity simulation. You work to get the right balance between what can be taught using face-to-face computer based simulation to prepare people so when they do go into a live situation, they have already developed some of the critical clinical reasoning and even psycho-motor skills from simulation labs," she said, adding that in an online environment, similarly to what Kohn expressed, educators get more control in what students are exposed.
"The reality is that in many cases those clinical hours are entirely random, and there's no assurance as to whether students are actually garnering competencies to work in clinical scenarios. As an educator you don't have any control in that situation, but with online technology you have control in what you get to expose students to," she said.
Similarly, Heath Willingham, the chair of graduate counseling at Faulkner University, said that for the institution's hybrid professional counseling degree they use the on-ground portion of the program for "gate-keeping," where students are evaluated on basic counseling skills and readiness.
"We model group counseling and teach them how to run sessions, where we look for specific skills," said Willingham. "It's a real world experience, but one that we design, so we can monitor what students are learning and measure how they are progressing."
Focusing on quality assurance is key
Kohn said that getting Syracuse's hybrid program to an acceptable place required back and forth with accrediting body, the American Bar Association, which under current policies allows only a third of a J.D. program to be distance education credits, unless granted a variance, as Syracuse and only two other law schools in the nation have won.
The ABA, which is more open to distance education, cites three main factors are critical in assuring that a program meets the necessary standards to provide students with return on investment: opportunity for substantive interaction between faculty students, monitoring of student effort, and deliverance of professional legal practicing skills.
Tailoring an online program to provide such outcomes can be difficult, said Jennifer Mathes, director of strategic partnerships at the Online Learning Consortium, which is why institutions considering such a move must consider how students are learning, not just how they are receiving the curriculum.
"The room for caution is centered around the quality of how this information is being presented and also the level of engagement and activity in the online courses. They will want to make sure they are engaging with the students so that monitoring of students happens, to make sure there are no instances of cheating. There would have to be some great processes in place so students in those classes are who they say they are," said Mathes.
She added there's potential for lesser quality programs to develop, so institutions ought to focus on the size of classrooms. "I think a lot more schools are being careful about the number of students they are admitting, some of the saturation has caused some schools to close. Though the demand may go up I think there will be steps in place to monitor the number students that are being accepted," she said.
Quality means up-front costs
Providing the type of quality up to par with standards of accrediting organizations like the ABA means heavily investing in course designs and faculty training, explains Michael Horowitz, president of the TCS Education System, a nonprofit group of colleges where the backbone organization handles economies of scale for partner institutions, including investment in online professional degree programs.
The TCS system is helping partner school The Santa Barbara & Ventura Colleges of Law with a hybrid J.D. program, the first of its kind in California, according to Matthew Nehmer, the institution's executive director.
"It’s a big investment so if you are not able to invest the educational resources you shouldn’t do it. It’s not an economic panacea. We now have 12 years of figuring out how to create the residential component in a online experience and that requires investment in a great learning platform and technology personnel that are very sophisticated and know how to extensively train faculty," said Horowitz.
"We are confident in the long-run you may register some savings on real estate, if you are the type of institution that can cut back, but that only works if you keep up with the up-front requirements," he said, adding that the team is also keeping data. "When we launch the hybrid law degree online we will continue with our 100% ground option format, and we are going to have an interesting natural experiment to see who in our community chooses to do either to see whether it will be mostly working adult students."