Distance Learning in Healthcare

As the decision to pursue a healthcare degree online becomes increasingly accepted, distance learning is losing its stigma.

Despite an increase in the number of students choosing to pursue higher education in healthcare through online resources, some critics argue that this method of learning has disadvantages which far outweigh its foremost benefit of convenience. However, as more affordable online education options are becoming available, the stigma behind this higher education alternative is fading.

Online healthcare degrees are now attainable at virtually every educational level, with accredited schools offering associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, as well as numerous certificates. These degrees equip students with the education and skills necessary to work directly with patients in healthcare service capacities. There are also accredited programs which cover management principles for medical technology, medical records and other administrative areas.

In a 2013 series of reports produced by Elaine Allen, PhD and Jeff Seaman, PhD, “Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States,” (http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/changingcourse.pdf) the authors note advances in the perception of the overall quality of online instruction as compared to face-to face. Allen and Seaman explain, “In the first report of this series in 2003, 57.2% of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face. That number is now 77%.”

With the higher education student body in the U.S. currently at 21 million, one out of three college students is reported to be taking a minimum of one course entirely online, according to a 2015 report by Babson Research titled “Tracking Online Education in the United States”. (http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/gradelevel.pdf) Additionally, this report documents that the current number of college students receiving an online education has exceeded 7 million.

Benefits of Online Learning

Healthcare leaders and students alike are largely in support of digital learning due to its characteristic flexibility. Unlike standard fixed-agenda classroom settings, online education allows students to manage their classes alongside other obligations. This is ideal for students who, due to geography, scheduling restrictions or disabilities, could otherwise not attend.

Flexibility also allows students to have the option to be enrolled in online classes while simultaneously maintaining or pursuing a stable source of income. Having these funds available assists students in paying off tuition as they go, rather than graduating with a large sum of student debt. This also enables healthcare professionals to continue to work in the field during the day, while furthering their education at night.

SEE ALSO: Looking Into the Crystal Ball

Many online programs also offer more targeted degree options that can be tailored to a student’s particular field of study. This omission of extraneous courses can allow participants to complete their degrees more quickly than they would while attending a formalized institution. Faster, more course-specific online degree programs can therefore save students money in the long run. While online programs themselves may be comparable in cost to some traditional universities and colleges, they often require less supplies, fewer required credits and come without room-and-board charges.

Getting the Best Deal

When deciding on an appropriate online healthcare program it’s important to first ask a school representative a series of key questions. These questions include what the actual cost of tuition is and how the program expects students to pay for it. Asking what the fixed program cost is (to avoid taking out unnecessary loans) and addressing how the financial aid process works within the program are also essential queries.

“A prospective online student should assess their interest in studying primarily on their own, and typically from home through a computer. The prospect should also explore any delivery mode preferences or rules promulgated by desired employers or key professional bodies,” explained Richard Garrett, director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education

Furthermore, all degree or certificate-seeking students should research a program’s documented consequences for having to take an emergency break from classes. Depending on the length of the break, some programs may choose to retract or suspend financial aid.

To find the best online schools relative to cost, students must consider factors like faculty credentials and available student services in addition to tuition. Gathering this information will give a student a more complete picture of the overall quality of a potential program.

Digital Disadvantages

Despite the appeal of a potentially lesser price tag, Ryan Hickey, author of the article, “The pros and cons of getting a degree online,” explains that critics of online education argue that it is merely a cheap replica of the traditional classroom experience. The student-professor relationship can be essential to acquiring a foundation of professional resources, causing online students to often lack a solid post-graduation network in comparison to those on-campus students.

According to critics, another downside of online studies it that it requires increased responsibility and self-motivation in students to succeed in a loosely structured environment. The freedom presented when taking an online class can be overwhelming to those students who prefer structure and guidance from advisors or administrators. Select programs, such as physical or occupational therapy, cannot be transformed to incorporate a solely virtual learning environment. For thorough understanding of this more hands-on material, programs will mandate in-class time.

The possibility for internet technology issues to arise is also an apparent downside to acquiring an online education. Many online programs require the use of a program-specific internet server, and when this server experiences technical problems, so do most students trying to gain access. This can be frustrating especially when students are trying to complete time-sensitive assignments.

Tech Innovations

Within online class structures, instructors are finding ways to utilize the full capacities of the internet. For example, taking a step back from the traditional lecture-style teaching approach, this new online educational paradigm allows professionals to be able to assign online quizzes, projects and the attendance of webinars.

Webinars, the online version of an almost instant virtual meeting, are often utilized by education institutions to teach and educate participants on new ideas or concepts by delivering online lectures and presentations. This is especially useful through virtual learning because it allows students to ask live questions to presenters, and for these presenters to respond immediately.

“We are in the middle of a revolution in higher education, and attitudes towards novel approaches change only gradually and sporadically,” explained Barham, general editor of TheBestSchools.org.

The two-way digital communication pattern online classes can now provide truly alleviates the previous one-sided nature of virtual learning. Now, viewing a webinar from home can be just as educationally fulfilling as sitting in a lecture hall. New technology is making it increasingly possible for instructors to create new and exciting ways for students to engage in learning more effectively than they would in a lecture hall with hundreds of fellow students.

“Some may confidently say that online education is not going away. Some would say it is the traditional bricks-and-mortar college that is going away, but personally I think that is doubtful. I suspect there will a mix of both for the foreseeable future, but doubtlessly with online education continuing to increase its market share slowly over time,” predicts Barham.

Lindsey Nolen is a staff writer. Contact: lnolen@advanceweb.com.

About The Author