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The STEM Education Landscape: Identifying the Major Barriers to Online STEM Degree Programs

—Co-written with Jennifer C. Drew | Associate Scientist in Microbiology and Cell Science, University of Florida—

The EvoLLLution | The STEM Education Landscape: Identifying the Major Barriers to Online STEM Degree Programs
It is challenging to create fully online degree programs that adequately meet the needs and expectations of today’s students, but hybrid programs that are developed with partners at community colleges can be successful in generating learning outcomes and retention rates comparable to on-campus programs.

While developing our own online STEM Bachelor of Science (BS) degree program, we immediately faced barriers that are unique to STEM in addition to the standard barriers of entry for any online program. In our view, these STEM-specific barriers may explain why there are so few online STEM undergraduate degree programs available. But first, we verified that STEM degrees are indeed disproportionately underrepresented among online programs. Based on the definition of STEM fields from criteria established by the National Center for Education Statistics and a list of online degree programs from the Guide to Online Schools, we identified the number of STEM and non-STEM undergraduate degree programs from six comprehensive state universities: Penn State University, Ohio State University, University of Florida (UF), University of Maryland, University of Minnesota, and University of Wisconsin (all are land-grant, AAU institutions with medical schools).

The mean number of STEM on-campus degrees at these six universities is 60.2 (+7.9), which represents 32.4 percent (+2.0) of all on-campus degrees. The mean number of STEM degrees offered online is 1.5 (+0.8), which represents 6.7 percent (+3.9) of the total of online degree options. Among the three of universities with a significant online presence (UF, Penn State, and Maryland), the mean percent of online undergraduate degree programs in STEM fields is 12.4 (+5.7). Thus, online STEM degrees represent a small proportion of both all available online degrees and of all on-campus and off-campus STEM degrees.

Given these data, what barriers prevent the establishment of more undergraduate STEM degree programs? In our experience, developing an online science degree program in the biological sciences requires overcoming these three barriers:

  1. A means to deliver laboratory courses
  2. Ability to provide undergraduate research experiences
  3. Ensuring that all admission requirements of most graduate and professional schools are met

A Means to Deliver Laboratory Courses

The first barrier in designing an online STEM degree program is delivering laboratory or field courses. Until rigorous testing of a virtual lab/field experience demonstrates equivalent learning and skills outcomes compared to face-to-face lab courses, it is important that lab and field courses remain as in-person experiences. Given the current lack of virtual substitutes, how can lab and field courses be provided for online STEM students? We recently described three alternatives in our undergraduate degree program (Drew et al. 2015). The first two years of coursework in our program includes typical STEM stalwarts such as introductory biology, chemistry, and organic chemistry, which are offered by other departments. The courses that are unique to our major are primarily taken during the last two years of college. As a result, our program is ideal for community college transfer students who take all of their introductory coursework at their local community college, which is close to their home and work. Thus, our program only needs to provide access to two required microbiology lab courses and not the labs associated with biology, chemistry, and physics.

Our students are given three options to take the two required Microbiology laboratory courses. First, students can take an equivalent laboratory course offered by another college or university and receive credit. Second, students can come to main campus of UF in the summer and take our lab courses in a compressed, immersive format over a period of days rather than weeks. Finally, if a cohort of at least 10 students is present in a location near a community college or off-campus UF research center, we will arrange to teach the course locally within the state of Florida. To date, we have offered our lab courses in three locations in central and southern Florida.

Ability to Provide Undergraduate Research Experiences

The second major barrier is the ability to offer quality undergraduate research opportunities, which is considered a best practice for any STEM program (Russell et al. 2007). Providing such experiences in a laboratory for distance students is challenging. We offer on-campus summer research experiences to distance education students. However, when the on-campus setting is not feasible, off-campus faculty located at 15 UF research sites serve as mentors for undergraduate research experiences. Additionally, we encourage students to find mentors outside of UF. Thinking beyond your own campus is crucial to providing distance students with the flexibility needed to participate in research experiences.

Meeting Admissions Requirements for Professional and Graduate Schools

The third barrier is to ensure that an online program satisfies admission to professional and graduate schools. Most medical school admissions committees accept undergraduate courses with online lectures provided that all exams are proctored and students have access to faculty via email, video conferencing, or discussions. All of our courses, on- or off-campus, are taught by the same instructors. All of our exams are proctored, and our faculty are available to all students. As professional schools generally do not accept online laboratory courses, all of our lab courses are in-person as described above.

Conclusion: Hybrid Approach is Best in STEM

By leveraging all resources, such as a vast network of off-campus research opportunities and partnerships with two-year schools, the major barriers in delivering an online STEM education can be overcome. Close partnerships with community colleges are cost-effective and efficient for any online STEM degree program. In our experience, community colleges welcome these partnerships as a means to provide additional opportunities for their students. With these partnerships, community colleges receive full credit for the AA degree, and the four-year institution gets the credit for the BS degree. In summary, a completely online undergraduate degree in STEM is not yet adequate to meet the needs of students. However, hybrid programs, particularly those that work closely with community college partners, can be successful with equal learning outcomes and retention rates compared to on-campus programs.

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