Case Study: Empire State College & NFA Partnership If you have spent any time around the fire service, you have heard how we resist change. It has to do with our traditions, the way we have always done things. The unknown is always worse than the known. However, the fire service is slowly...
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The National Fire Academy has been offering the Degrees at a Distance Program (DDP) since 1979. The academy entered into an agreement with seven universities around the country to offer fire service-related college-level courses. DDP has offered 13 core course curriculums to the seven accredited colleges in a print format. The course concentration can lead a student to fire administration and fire prevention technology degrees. Edward J. Kaplan, education program specialist for the National Fire Academy, estimates that more than 1,000 students are currently seeking a degree from these seven colleges, with an estimated 2,500 graduates.
Why Online Learning?
Firefighters who work full time and attend college find the DDP very appealing. Another of my former students, Dwight Good of Mariposa, CA, said, "None of the colleges in my area offered the degree paths or coursework I was interested in. The online classroom (Empire State College), with its flexible schedule and extensive selection of courses, degree path and resources has made this impossible goal achievable for me."
The increase in the number of institutions offing online learning has increased significantly and it does not appear that the growth rate will slow any time soon. I have been teaching online classes for more than three years at Empire State College and most of my students say they enjoy the freedom from attending classes on a set schedule. Emergency service work does not have a normal business cycle and students are often called into work for emergencies. In the traditional setting, a student would be faced to take extra shifts or arrange for someone to cover the shift while he or she attended the traditional classroom. Firefighters who have suffered an acute injury or a permanent injury (disability) can still access online learning with ease.
In many locations, students seeking a specialized degree such as fire science often have to travel a great distance to attend a college class. Again, the student taking online courses will save the travel time (to and from class) and the cost of fuel. This may not seem like much; however, take this savings and multiply it by the number of classes required for your degree and see the savings.
On the other hand, quality in online education involves intangibles such as a supportive and safe environment. It has been my experience that students in the online environment are more willing to take an educational risk, sharing ideas, challenges and accomplishments when compared to the traditional classroom. They are not subjected to the "roll of the eyes" or to peer pressure.
A quality online course must have established learning objectives aligned with course content and assessments. In their November 2006 presentation, "A Government and University Partnership Converts a National Fire Curriculum to an Online Environment," at the 12th annual Sloan-C International ALN Conference, Kaplan and Sonja Thomson noted that the challenge in developing an online program is utilizing a student's professional experience as well as national standards, current trends and cutting-edge research. Again, this is what FESHE has been working toward. In this standardized process, the students will understand what it is they will learn, how they will learn and how what they learn is going to be evaluated. As an online instructor, I always provide my students with feedback. The feedback needs to be consistent, timely, constructive and supportive. An online program must be fully accredited. If an online program is lacking these basic tenets, a quality education will not be possible and you will have wasted your time and money.
I am sure that you have seen advertisements for online educational programs that talk about the ease of acquiring your online degree from the comfort of your home, on your own schedule, wearing your slippers. Unfortunately, this can be a disservice to the online environment. Students quickly realize that they need to be motivated and disciplined when taking an online class.
Today, colleges that offer the traditional classroom courses and online courses are trying to appeal to two very different demographics: students right out of high school (18 to 22 years old) vs. adult learners in middle age/mid-career. As the field of higher educations changes, the National Fire Academy has taken notice and is working to offer online learning to firefighters and first responders across the country.
A Partnership for Change