By Sascha Zuger
Think the current economy should put a pinch on extra spending across the blackboard? Not so. Teachers are hitting the virtual books to pump up their paycheck and ensure job security in a time of declining staff and opportunity for advancement.
Doing this through accredited online programs offers the same quality of education with the benefit of flexibility and release from any need to take a leave of absence or time away from the job. Online programs might even offer a further advantage of lower tuition for the same class offered face to face. Some universities extend vastly discounted “in state” tuition rates to online students, regardless of their geographical location.
Here are a few top programs to consider when jumping across to the other side of the desk:
University of Maryland University College
UMUC began offering online courses, programs, and services in the mid-90’s as an outgrowth of its mission to serve working adult students. Today, UMUC offers 30 bachelor’s and 14 master’s degree programs fully online, with more than 90,000 students and more than 189,000 online enrollments worldwide, making it the largest public university in the nation.
UMUC has not seen a noticeable effect in online program numbers due to today’s financial climate. “Online learning was already growing tremendously in popularity and scope before the current economic difficulties,” says Mark L. Parker, Assistant Provost for Academic Affairs, University of Maryland University College. “If anything, we find that during tough economic times people are more likely to participate in higher education in order to make themselves more competitive in a tighter job market.”
Are new tech offerings now and in the future the key ingredient to success? “I don’t think technology per se is making online learning easier. Rather, what’s happening is that students are coming to us with higher levels of technology fluency and what we think of as ‘comfort’ with the use of technology for communication and for learning,” says Parker. “I think in five years we will see the influence of Web 2.0 in online learning in the form of even greater interactivity and more use of social networking. We will also undoubtedly see more virtual reality software of the ‘Second Life’ type being used in teaching and learning.”
Not only learning by distance, but learning to teach distance learning adds up to job security. “Our Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Instructional Technology focuses on the integration of technology into primary and secondary teaching and learning. For those involved in post-secondary education or workplace training, our Master of Distance Education (MDE) degree program engenders a strategic view of the planning, implementation, and management of e-learning initiatives in organizations (regardless of what sector the organization operates in).”
Northcentral University offers educators accredited programs that range from a certificate of advanced graduate studies to a doctorate of education, with nine specialties within each program such as educational technology and Elearning, global training and development and athletic administration.
“People will now be very particular in the way they spend their money, the opportunities are going to ride with those who upgrade their credentials and diversify their skill sets in education so that when the economy becomes robust again they'll be able to compete successfully for those jobs. We're seeing educators making sound investments in the next step of their future, instead of on discretionary spending,” Dennis J. Lessard, Ph.D., Dean, School of Education at Northcentral University.
One way for universities to stay competitive is to offer better value. “Education is a commodity and it’s all about convenience, it's about price and it’s about accessibility. It's something that people shop for and people are very savvy consumers now. Northcentral has a one-on-one mentor program built upon the Oxford model of mentoring which is really unique in the online world because you are paired up with a single learner, rather than being dumped in a class of 20-30 people. You actually go through your education process into each course paired up with a single mentor,” says Thomas A. Stapleford, Ed.D., J.D. Director of Curriculum and Outcomes Assessment, Northcentral University.
Known regionally as a teacher's college, Grand Canyon University has a sixty-year history, bringing 6,500 students to certification as educators.
“The economy has had a very favorable impact on our online degree programs. Professionals are seeking to enhance their skills and/or advance their education and we have seen an increase in interest from veterans, taking advantage of the Post 9-11 GI Bill and the ability to use tuition funds for private education. Many veterans, because of their management and teamwork skills experienced in the military, are natural leaders in the classroom," says Bill Jenkins, Executive Director Institutional Advancement, Grand Canyon University.
Tackling the job of predicting the future of online learning is tough. “Distance learning was really a precursor to Web 2.0 technologies, so whatever we do in the future will be on the cutting edge and eventually become mainstream,” says Jenkins. “We have added a Doctorate in Educational Leadership to our degree offerings. We also have many online students taking advantage of the federally funded TEACH grant (Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education), which provides up to $4,000 per year for graduate and undergraduate tuition for those who plan to teach in high-needs areas (as defined by each state).”
"Wilkes University has seen a greater demand for online course and programs,” says Barbara Moran, Program Coordinator of the economy’s effect on enrollment. “Approximately 7,000 students have graduated from Master’s of Education programs at Wilkes University in the last 10 years."
Staying up to date with technological advances and trends throughout the world steers students Wilkes’ way, demonstrated in new elective course, “Using Comparative Perspectives to Understand Society.”
"This new course has been developed with the New York Times and is packed with content and interactive features. It includes all the wealth of the multimedia resources attached to the New York Times. It also contains an assignment that offers asynchronous interaction with David E. Sanger, a New York Times North Korean Correspondent. This is the first for-credit course that the New York Times has done with any university. We are also partnering with them on a spring 2010 course on Global Education."
Other new additions and affiliations include -- Instructional Media (with Discovery Education), Online Teaching (with Performance Learning Systems, Inc.), The Art and Science of Teaching (with National Institute for Professional Practice) and The Autism Endorsement Program, a 12-credit online graduate program designed to provide educators with advanced training in the areas of autism spectrum disorders and pervasive developmental disorders.
Fresno Pacific University, listed by U.S. News & World Report in the top tier among master's universities-west, serves more than 2,400 undergraduate and graduate students on campus. Today more than 14,000 educators choose from among 300+ online and distance courses, including three fully online master's degrees available for teachers (library & information technology, curriculum & teaching, and kinesiology).
"The downturn in the economy has led to school districts tightening their budgets and they have had to lay-off teachers. This has affected the number of teachers taking classes for salary advancement over the summer,” says Matt Gehrett, Executive Director. “We are also seeing districts encouraging their teachers to pursue graduate degrees, instead of just professional development credits. Now that school is in session and the economy is starting to bounce back, it seems that teachers are starting to look ahead and begin again the pursuit of their graduate education,
Despite this blip in enrollment, Gehrett sees a bright future for online learning. “I believe online learning will continue to grow but it will be most effective in a blended/hybrid format.For educators, it will continue to become a more and more viable option because of their busy lives. I also think that teaching online can make someone a better teacher because of the process involved in developing online courses. It is not so easy to wing it. You have to ask yourself the tough pedagogical questions and design an effective learning path that meets the needs of your students. I think online teaching could possibly improve the quality of teaching at all levels over the next 5 years.”
Belt tightening can also lead to creative thinking to achieve the same level of success. “We have been very pleased with Moodle as our course management system. Our ability to customize it to work with other systems on campus and the ability to add more features through open source development has been valuable. This tool has allowed us to compete well with the big schools that can afford Blackboard and other tools that are very costly.”