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Experiential Online Graduate Programs Enhance Learning Outcomes and Career Readiness

Experiential Online Graduate Programs Enhance Learning Outcomes and Career Readiness
Online graduate programming is beginning to emerge as a highly-rigorous and well-regarded mechanism for working professionals to continue their education and advance in their careers.

The following email Q&A is with Philip Regier, executive vice provost of Arizona State University (ASU), and dean of ASU Online and Extended Campus. Experiential learning is a significant tool in creating rigorous online graduate education programs, and of ASU Online’s 26 master’s and two doctoral programs, seven require practicums. In this interview, Regier shares his thoughts on the growing recognition of online graduate programming and discusses the importance of experiential learning to that shift in perspective.

1. What are the most common misconceptions about online graduate programming when it comes to academic quality and rigor?

Maybe the biggest misconception about online graduate programming is true about online education in general. Online courses are often thought of as easier to complete, when, in fact, online classes are often more challenging than campus-based courses. Obtaining an online graduate degree requires immense self-discipline, time management skills, commitment and the ability to not procrastinate, all of which pose a challenge for many students. It takes more focus to successfully complete an online degree than a traditional degree because you don’t have the enforced discipline of actually having to show up to class. The bottom line is that, for busy professionals and working adults, online degrees are a flexible alternative, but are every bit as rigorous and often require more discipline than a traditional classroom environment.

That being said, we put a great deal of consideration into our online courses to ensure they’re interesting and engaging for online learners. Yes, we want to ensure we’ve developed a course that has the same learning outcomes as our face-to-face course; and until the course is at the same level, it doesn’t go online. But with more than a decade of experience building and offering graduate programs at ASU, we’re confident we have also created engaging and interesting courses for online learners already leading full lives.

The second misconception is that online degrees are less credible and won’t be viewed as favorably by potential employers. That hasn’t been our experience, and a recent national survey conducted by Zogby Analytics revealed that nearly two-thirds of employers familiar with online education believe the degrees earned are as credible as one earned through a traditional program. This finding will only grow stronger with time as employers seek out education options that are more flexible for their workforce than traditional brick-and-mortar programs.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that online courses are simply the method by which students take classes and earn their degree — a vehicle allowing for access and flexibility. Through ASU Online, students earn their degree from Arizona State University with classes taught by the same professors and engage in the same high-caliber academics as our on-the-ground students.

2. Why is experiential and community-based learning critical to graduate education?

Experiential learning is critical to preparing online students for professional life after graduation and the challenges they will face in real-world environments. Often times, experiential or community-based learning is an external requirement for a certification of the program. The graduate programs at ASU Online that require experiential components include both practicums and on-the-ground training that greatly enhance the learning process and encourage professional growth and development in a supportive atmosphere.

A lack of one-on-one attention is often an issue people point to with online education. Many critics feel that without being face-to-face with a professor, their needs will not be met when, in fact, many programs offer multiple ways to interact with students — discussion boards, email, chat rooms, live-streamed lectures, etc. Additionally, research shows that the outcomes of those pursuing online degrees don’t differ from those sitting in a classroom and, for many, actually encourage stronger dialogue and interaction.

3. How can a university integrate experiential learning opportunities into its online graduate programming?

Universities can integrate experiential learning opportunities into online graduate programming through labs that incorporate simulation tools which provide students with hands-on skills.

Our Master’s of Education in curriculum and instruction: autism spectrum disorders program provides ASU students with much-needed experience as they evolve as qualified professionals. A variety of practicum settings are used including observations in classrooms, developing curriculum, conducting research in social work or therapy and other similar endeavors that occur in practices with individuals with autism.

4. What role does continuing education play in helping to develop high-quality online graduate programming?

When we typically reference continuing education, we’re speaking of non-degree education with an emphasis on lifelong learning. For those students who already have an undergraduate degree, they’re most likely already working in their field. So the question becomes: what role does graduate education play in furthering one’s education and career?

In education, for example, an educator can have a certificate to teach K-12 but may not be certified to work with students with autism. A degree in a specific program related to an existing field or job can increase the opportunities for an individual as well as allow them to become more valuable to their organization.

Much has changed with regard to the offerings of online graduation programs. Early on, programs focused on engineering and business because the technology to bring on other programs simply didn’t exist. Now, the technology has advanced rapidly, allowing us to bring on a wide variety of high-caliber courses at much more accessible tuition rates. Additionally, market demand plays a significant role in determining what courses are delivered online. While education and healthcare-related programs have historically been popular, business administration MBA and criminal justice MA programs continue to rise.

Lastly, as professors become increasingly accepting of the learning outcomes delivered by online courses, they further realize the opportunity to affect a much greater number of students versus the potential limits of 80 to 120 students in the classroom environment.

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