Going the distance
Today’s Ohio State students can live anywhere in the world thanks to an excellent and ever-expanding array of online degree programs.
Brittany Moore dreamed of teaching at the college level. But some hurdles stood in her way: She needed more education than the associate’s degree she had earned at a community college, and she worked two part-time jobs. Plus, she and her husband were ready to start a family in Findlay, Ohio.
Then she learned she could pursue an Ohio State degree online. Over the course of six years, she earned a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene, then a master’s.
“I was able to keep working and have two kids and even move, all while in the program,” said Moore, a dental hygienist and part-time dental hygiene instructor. Looking back at what she’s accomplished, she feels certain she’ll reach her goal of teaching full-time and eventually directing a dental hygiene program.
Ohio State is working to attract more students like Moore. Moving cautiously for several years, the university has increased its distance learning offerings to 12 online degree programs. The goal is to have 35 programs in place by 2020.
The online nursing programs are the most popular so far. Others focus on welding engineering, global engineering leadership, agricultural and extension education, dental hygiene, clinical and preclinical research, plant health management and health science. Most are master’s programs, and a few are bachelor completion programs for those with associate degrees or significant college credit.
“It’s great to provide an Ohio State University education to people through quality online programs, particularly people who are place-bound because of families and their jobs,” said Michael Hofherr, vice president and the university’s chief information officer.
Right tools, right time
Why expand now? “The technology available for delivery of these courses has improved dramatically,” Hofherr said. “It’s taken us to a place where we can provide innovative and engaging experiences for students. The defining feature of this distance learning world is how interactive it is.”
Associate Professor of Welding Engineering Avi Benatar can attest to that. His department launched online classes in 1998 and a master of welding engineering degree program — which serves students in the United States and abroad — in 2003.
“When we first started, it was a combination of capturing lectures, creating our own primitive learning management system and even mailing CDs with recordings to students,” Benatar said. “Now we have a web-based system where students can log in, see the content, view the lectures, download assignments, participate in discussions with other students, take quizzes and view grades.”
If a student doesn’t understand something, Benatar uses a conferencing system that lets him see the student’s screen to troubleshoot. He’s also in frequent communication with students by phone and email.
Growth in grad degrees
The National Center for Education Statistics reports 12.5 percent of college students were enrolled exclusively in online programs in 2012, with graduate students outnumbering undergraduate students two to one.
The numbers align with Ohio State’s vision: As it looks to the future, the university plans to focus on increasing online degree programs for graduate students and retaining its strong residential approach for students seeking traditional bachelor’s degrees.
To grow its program, Ohio State had to get organized. While a few individual colleges had rolled out online degree programs earlier, it was 2012 when the university undertook a centralized, coordinated effort and created the Office of Distance Education and eLearning (ODEE).
Robert Griffiths, senior director of digital scholarship and development, said ODEE staff members assist faculty from start to finish. They provide instructional design support for courses, secure approvals for programs to operate in each state and measure program success through student satisfaction and graduation rates.
“What really makes Ohio State different is we are delivering the same learning outcomes and same course experiences as what would be expected if you came on campus,” Griffiths said. “This degree is not a less-than, but an equal-to.”
Distance education students must meet the same admission standards as traditional students. They are taught by the same faculty and are eligible for the same benefits, including financial aid, scholarships and even football tickets.
And the results are solid. In January, U.S. News & World Report ranked Ohio State’s online nursing graduate programs sixth in the nation and its engineering graduate programs 19th. The online bachelor’s degree programs for nursing and dental hygiene are ranked eighth nationally.
Still, one might wonder whether students enrolled in online courses learn as much as those in brick-and-mortar classrooms.
“There is no statistically significant difference between a student’s learning outcome in an online course versus an on-ground course,” Griffiths said, citing Ohio State’s own assessments and those of Quality Matters, an international nonprofit focusing on online education. In an often-cited 2010 study, the U.S. Department of Education found K–12 students in online courses performed “modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.”
The experiences of Travis Vitello of Oviedo, Florida, who earned his master’s in welding engineering from Ohio State in 2014, back up the stats.
“The faculty was outstanding,” he said. “I learned from the people who write the textbooks and are the best in the world. The professors were very accommodating and flexible.”
Other students interviewed cited additional benefits:
- Affordability: All students — regardless of their state of residence — pay in-state tuition and a $100 distance learning fee. Out-of-state students pay only an extra $5, which helped Vitello stretch his employer-funded tuition assistance. The real savings come in not paying room, board and activity fees.
- Accessibility: Most students need just a computer and the Internet. They access course materials through CarmenCourses — Ohio State’s online learning management system — and take part in virtual discussions, seminars, office hours and tutoring with professors and other students through CarmenConnect (which also allows for tech support). With email, Skype, discussion boards and phones, it was easy to reach faculty, said graduate student Alice Taylor, adding, “Everyone responded in 24 hours or less.”
- Flexibility: Students get their work done when they want, where they want. “I could log in during my lunch hour or during a break,” said Moore, who studied in the evening after putting her kids to bed. Vitello said he was able to keep up with his studies even while working in India and Germany. “I didn’t have to choose between work and school,” he said.
Still, online learning — even with ample resources — is not for everyone. “Students need to be disciplined, organized and self-motivated or they won’t get far,” Griffiths said.
Want to test the waters? You can take a couple courses as a non-degree student, and up to seven credits will count if you enroll later. Ohio State also offers some free online classes through massive open online courses (MOOCs) and iTunes U. Ohio residents 60 and older can take free online and traditional classes through Program 60. Learn more about these programs here.
Like many working professionals, Karen Gilgenbach wanted to better serve her customers. She had an engineering degree from Michigan State, but her job as a district manager for Airgas required her to offer technical support to welding and fabricating companies, and she felt she needed more training.
“I’d tried a traditional evening classes program and hadn’t been able to make that work with my work schedule,” she said, “so I discontinued it.”
Distance learning never occurred to Gilgenbach, who lives in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Then a colleague told her Ohio State offered the only master’s degree in welding engineering in the country — and that she could pursue it online. She enrolled, but not without trepidation.
“When I started, I was very intimidated. I was really concerned about balancing the workload with my job and being almost 500 miles from my professors and classmates. How would I be able to access help or talk through questions I had? But one of the big surprises was how flexible the program was and how I was able to make it work even on the most demanding weeks.”
How she does it
On a typical day, Gilgenbach gets up at 5 a.m. and is at her job until 5 p.m. Three evenings a week, she downloads a lecture and takes notes. “I do my homework and heavy lifting on the weekends.”
If she has to travel during the workweek, she studies all weekend at her own pace. “If I want to watch four lectures at once or if I want to go back and watch a lecture again, I can. I’m able to work whenever I want, even late at night in my sweatpants.”
When she has questions, she emails her professors. Initially, their quick responses surprised her.
“One of the biggest shocks was how dedicated and committed all the professors were. Every single professor was incredible in terms of being responsive and answering questions,” she said. “Several times I thought, ‘I can’t believe all the hours the professors are working to help everyone. Because I’m just one student, and they are putting in a lot of time helping me.’”
Many routes to the material
She also was impressed with how engaging the material was, particularly when she participated in discussion boards with classmates and faculty. “It was a great learning experience to see all the different questions and answers that people contributed, all the different ways to look at a problem.”
Any pitfalls? “There’s nothing to say, ‘You have to do it at this time,’ so a person might procrastinate. You have to be very self-disciplined,” she said, noting that timed, online quizzes helped her stay on track. “If you knew you had a quiz in 24 hours, it really made you keep up with the reading and studying.”
For Gilgenbach, the program was a perfect fit. She began her studies in 2013 and will graduate in December. “I’ve learned so much,” she said, “and I’ve been able to apply a lot of it at my job in working with our customers.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree from Ohio State in 2011 and working two years as a research biologist, Kevin Ricks wanted to enter a PhD program in cardiovascular research. Unfortunately, his undergraduate GPA wasn’t high enough for the doctoral programs that matched his ambitions.
Now what? Ricks turned to an Ohio State advisor, who told him about the new online master of applied clinical and preclinical research (MACPR) program. It appealed to him immediately.
First, a stronger GPA in a master’s program would improve his credentials to pursue a PhD. Second, he could explore career options in clinical research, where jobs include monitoring patients in clinical trials, designing research studies and managing teams of researchers. Plus, the program’s oversight by the colleges of Nursing, Pharmacy, Medicine and Veterinary Medicine meant he’d have top professors in several disciplines.
Determining your pace
Ricks enrolled as one of the program’s first 27 students in August 2014. He and three others took a full-time course load and graduated one year later. (Most students work full-time while pursuing their degrees and graduate in 18 to 24 months, said the program’s director, Margie Neidecker.)
Now serving 70 students, MACPR is one of the university’s fastest-growing online degree programs. And with good reason.
“The clinical research field has become more and more sophisticated,” Neidecker said. “Research protocols are getting more complex, so the role of the professionals is more demanding. Clinical research careers are becoming a full-fledged recognized profession, and we are responding to that evolution.”
Alice Taylor, a clinical research coordinator at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, is a student in the program. The courses help her every day on the job, she said.
“I work with principal investigators and research participants to organize clinical trials and make sure they’re conducted in an ethical manner. There are so many rules and regulations governing research, it’s hard to know it all. Taking these courses, I’ve been exposed to so many different things. It’s really helpful to get updates on the research world and FDA regulations.”
The degree also will make her more competitive to reach a personal goal: gaining admission to med school.
Learning from the best
To ensure Taylor and her fellow students get the education and guidance they need, Ohio State recruited individuals such as Carolynn Jones, a national expert in clinical research curriculum. She helped develop the MACPR program and teaches two courses.
Brian Roche ’00 PhD, a research director with WIL Research in Ashland, Ohio, is one of several working professionals guiding the program. He is creating a safety pharmacology course to be offered spring semester, and he’s excited to share his expertise.
“There are lots of opportunities in drug development companies, research organizations and government or academic settings,” Roche said. Other graduate programs in safety pharmacology train students to teach, he said, while Ohio State’s is more focused on preparing people to work in the field.
As for Ricks, he finished in August with a 3.9 GPA, donned a cap and gown, and marched with fellow members of the Class of 2015. Weeks later, he accepted a job with Columbus-based Battelle, the world’s largest nonprofit research and development organization. He still plans to pursue a PhD, but for now, he’s thrilled with his new job.
“You can go directly from this program into the workplace and be productive,” he said.
Five principles of online learning at Ohio State
Student-centered learning: Professors are still in charge, but they’re not considered the only source of knowledge. Beyond listening to lectures, you’ll be expected to explore, do your own research and learn from your classmates.
Interactivity: Students and professors may use Twitter, Pinterest and other social media to connect, and most participate in discussion boards and video chats. Discussions can last a week, with 100 postings on a topic. You’re required to participate, but the good news is that you’ll hear many different views.
Technology: There’s no need to be a tech wizard, but students get comfortable using applications such as Voice Thread, which lets them add their voices to slide presentations and share them with others (who can add their two cents with a microphone, webcam or keyboard).
Dynamic content: The trend is to make lectures shorter and link students to resources such as e-books or websites. Instructional designers work with professors to help them engage students and make content come alive. That may even mean a golden retriever introduces a lecture.
Writing skills: Since you won’t be talking face-to-face with professors and classmates daily, you’ll need to communicate clearly and frequently in writing to join in discussions, answer questions, participate in group projects and complete assignments.