Higher education: Online Learning and Program Selection: The Basics

A s you consider promotion to the next rank within your organization or a leadership position in a different organization, you may have questions such as: How have I prepared for this new opportunity? What can I do to ensure success in the assessment, hiring and testing process? How can I perform better than the other potential candidates? What knowledge, skills, abilities, experience and cognitive understanding do I bring to the process and offer my potential new employer?

As you review job openings, position announcements and leadership descriptions from across the world of fire science, you will likely repeatedly see statements such as these: “four-year degree or equivalent in fire science, emergency management, public administration, business administration or related advanced education in the fire-EMS or emergency management fields”; “bachelor’s degree in fire science, public administration, business management or similar discipline”; or “graduation from an accredited college or university with a bachelor’s degree in public or business administration, fire science or a closely related field, a graduate degree is preferred.”

In a career in fire and emergency services, leading members and effectively managing the organization are key components to long-term success. To that end, a degree may help increase your understanding, knowledge and abilities in areas such as leadership, management, evaluating community risk, strategy and tactics, budgeting, policy analysis and the legal and ethical aspects of the fire and emergency services.

While the degree is important, and perhaps crucial, to career advancement, for many people the pace and schedule of daily life is busy and somewhat inflexible. For many students, and especially those with multiple job, family and life commitments, online learning may be a welcome option.

In years past, before the prevalence of Internet access, distance learning consisted of correspondence college-level courses in which students and instructors would mail one another course work, assignments and examinations. Now, with extensive access and support, students with careers, families and other claims on their time can still attend courses and earn degrees online in ways that may not be feasible with “brick and mortar” institutions. According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) report, The Condition of Education 2011, in 2007-2008, about 4.3 million undergraduate students (approximately 20% of all undergraduates), took at least one distance education course. Additionally, approximately 800,000 took their entire program through distance education. The report also states that the percentage of undergraduates who took any distance education courses increased from 16% in 2003-2004 to 20% in 2007-2008. Currently, it is estimated that nearly 12 million U.S. college students are taking some or all of their classes online, with this number estimated to increase to more than 22 million in the next five years, according to data released by the research firm Ambient Insight.


Understanding online learning

For those in the fire and emergency sciences, there are numerous benefits to choosing online learning as a means of earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree:

• Access. Access to learning may be via live webinars/webcasts, videoconferencing, pre-recorded instructional videos or computer-based platforms accessed through the Internet. Students are provided with the opportunity to learn in the comfort of their home or the firehouse. In fully online courses, students can earn degrees without any requirement to regularly travel to the “brick and mortar” institution.

• Pace. In online learning, students may complete courses at their pace, further supporting the balance between education, life, family and the firehouse. Also, many online programs do not require a minimum course load in order to remain a current full-time or part-time student.

• Student interaction. While interaction among students in the online learning environment may appear to be limited on the surface, the reality is quite the contrary. Student interaction in online learning can be obtained through discussion boards, during webinars/live webcasts, chat rooms, social media and other useful educational tools such as VoiceThread.

“Think of it this way – if we were having a discussion in the classroom, we’re doing the same through the virtual environment,” explained Major Jarett Metheny of the Midwest City, OK, Fire Department and a fire science instructor for Kaplan University. “The programs I have been involved with have created a long-lasting network of colleagues where resources have been exchanged and opinions have been sought. The variety of educational programs in the fire service is representative of global advances in society. We are now able to reach way beyond jurisdictional boundaries for the solutions that provide an enhanced level of service for our communities.”

• Support. Online degree programs offer many of the same support mechanisms as traditional institutions. These may include assistance with math and writing (writing and math centers), assistance with job and promotional preparedness (interviewing and resume-building skills), as well as technology support.

The bottom line when selecting an online degree program is to ensure it is going to work for you, personally and professionally. Additionally, make sure it works for your family, career and overall schedule. Take a look at key areas of your life, including time management, scheduling, goal setting and commitment.

Degree programs you consider should hold an accreditation by a known accrediting agency. Accreditation means the college or university is a legitimate institution and that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the “education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.” Known accrediting agencies include: New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and The Higher Learning Commission. (See “The Accreditation Debate” by Younes Mourchid, Ph.D., in Firehouse®, February 2012.)

By selecting an online degree program that holds the appropriate accreditation, fire and emergency services students will have access to further their education knowing their degree will meet the requirements for graduate school, for example. Additionally, if students plan to apply for the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program at the National Fire Academy, the application requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution of higher learning.

When considering an online associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a fire science or fire administration program that is regionally accredited, numerous colleges and universities are recognized through the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) website at http://www.usfa.fema.gov/nfa/higher_ed/. Additionally, online graduate-level degree programs are listed on the FESHE website. Many of the colleges and universities listed offer online or blended-format degree programs as well. (See “National Fire Academy Promotes Standardized Fire Science Education” by Paul Snodgrass in Firehouse®, February 2012.)


Assessing the faculty

Finally, when assessing a degree program, consider the faculty’s level of training, education and experience: Are they practitioners in the field? For example, if you are enrolled in a research methods course, has your instructor conducted research for policy change or implementation? Does the faculty teaching the strategy and tactics course have the practical experience in fireground and incident decision-making and pre-planning to meet the needs of an incident?

“From a professional standpoint,” Metheny said, “I have the opportunity to serve as both a practitioner in the fire service and as a faculty member and blend theory with practical experience which enhances my abilities and creates valuable dialogue for the class participants. The students value my experience, but more importantly, they value the diversity of opinions and ideas from classmates from across the country. The unique exchange of ideas in discussion boards and seminar sessions enhances professional and personal perspectives, which is the true value of any educational program.”

Online learning is on the rise and expected to be even more prevalent in the future as an option for many in the fire and emergency services. This will increase availability and access for those seeking or needing a degree. The key to success in the online learning environment is time management, support and a personal commitment to attaining your goals. n