Online Learning: The New Generation

April 1, 2007
Paul J. Antonellis Jr. presents a case study of a partnership between a college and the National Fire Academy.

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 changing; and online education is making a name for itself in the community.

This article will examine a pilot online education program at the National Fire Academy. It is not my intent to debate whether online education is better than traditional classroom education. This debate has been around for some time and no clear-cut answer is available. What is known is that more and more colleges and universities are offering online education. The most recent research by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, reported that during the 2000-2001 academic year, 56% (2,320) of all two-year and four-year colleges offered "distance education" courses to students at any level. In addition, 12% of the institutions planned to offer distance education in the following three years. The research included 4,130 degree-granting institutions.

History of Distance Education

The first generation of distance education consisted of a course outline, objectives, textbook and written assignments. The student would sign up for a distance education class and the institution would send the student the course in the mail. The student did not have to attend classes and could reside in anywhere in the world. This was considered "a classroom without walls."

Empire State College ( is part of the State University of New York (SUNY). Its Center for Distance Learning was founded in 1979. It is a fully accredited college dedicated to enabling adults, regardless of where they live or their life circumstances, to manage and master a rigorous academic program and earn a degree. One of my former students, FDNY Battalion Chief Peter J. Gannon, said, "I chose to pursue my degree in order to be eligible for a promotion within the FDNY...It allowed me the flexibility I needed to accomplish my degree plans."

Empire State College is a founding member of the SUNY Learning Network, which developed the first online degree program in university. It offers approximately 450 "online" courses reaching more than 16,000 students via the Center for Distance Learning or through seven regional centers across the state. Empire State College has degree programs in the arts, business, management and economics, community and human services, cultural studies, educational studies, historical studies, human development, interdisciplinary studies, labor studies, science, math and technology, social theory, social structure and change. The college currently offers education in emergency management, homeland security and fire service administration leading to a bachelor of science or bachelor of professional studies degree.

In addition, Empire State College's Center for Graduate Programs offers five master of arts degrees and a master of business administration (MBA) that are designed to be relevant to the student's work and intellectual interests. These programs involve weekend residencies for each of the core courses. Between residencies, the students communicate with the instructor via telephone, mail, e-mail and the Internet.

Degrees at a Distance Program

The Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) initiative seeks to strengthen the meaning and value of a higher education degree. The FESHE National Fire Science Curriculum Committee represents more than 100 two-year and four-year degree-granting intuitions. The goal of FESHE is to develop a National Professional Development Model and a Model Fire-Related associate and baccalaureate curricula. FESHE does not want to take any control or oversight away from any of the institutions; rather, it is looking to standardize mismatched fire science-related degree programs across the country. This change has not been embraced by all: again this is change and many do not like change. In the past, if someone had a "fire science" degree, it meant that the requirements for that degree would be different depending on the college or university. Students had difficulties transferring credits into a new college because of the lack of a standardized course name and outline.

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

Nothing in the fire service should be considered stagnant. Seeing this changing field of education, the National Fire Academy entered into a partnership with Empire State College in 2005 to lead the conversion of 13 courses. Since 1997, the National Fire Academy DDP has provided seven colleges with 13 upper-level courses. The seven colleges include the University of Cincinnati, Western Illinois University, Cogswell College, University of Maryland, University of Memphis, Western Oregon University and Empire State College. Each college was responsible for developing courses via hiring subject matter experts and content reviewers.

Being on the adjunct faculty at Empire State College, I was selected to be a subject-matter expert on behalf of the fire science program. Nicola Martinez, director of curriculum and instructional design group, at Empire State College, was the project coordinator overseeing the development of all six courses. The 2005 pilot program would only include the following courses: community and fire threat; fire dynamics; incendiary fire analysis and investigation; applications of fire research; fire protection structures and system design; managerial issues in hazardous materials.

On April 29, 2005, more than 25 people from around the country met at the National Fire Academy to begin the process of developing the six online courses. The group selected me to be the team leader to develop the Applications of Fire Research course. Dr. Denis Onieal, superintendent of the National Fire Academy, said during the meeting, "This room contains experts from around the country...this pilot program will have a significant impact on the fire service for years to come."

It was decided that all of the sponsoring colleges had to complete their courses by July 15, 2005. After the National Fire Academy reviewed the course for content, it would be evaluated against the government's Sharable Content Object References Model (SCORM) standards. SCORM is a technical specification that details how online training is developed and delivered to students.

One major challenge the development teams faced was developing an online course that would meet the needs of all seven schools' different philosophies, terms lengths and course management system capabilities. During the pilot program (Phase I) four out of six courses were successfully converted. As the team leader for Applications of Fire Research, my group was the first to complete the conversion and the first to receive SCORM compliance. During Phase II (2006) four out of nine courses have been successfully converted. The third development team has been hired and the process is progressing. Once the courses have received SCORM compliance, they are ready to be handed off to all seven colleges and universities.

Lessons Learned

This partnership has never been attempted at this level for online learning. The expected outcome from this process was an increase in learning effectiveness. According to Kaplan and Thomson, "We wanted to maximize the utilization of inquiry-based, collaborative and the discovery of learning activities tied directly to each student's professional experiences, as well as national standards, current trends and cutting-edge research. Additionally, we wanted to increase the student's satisfaction." The course was built to include teaching presence, internal consistency, use of sound cognitive enhancement strategies, strong visual appeal and immediacy of online resources.

It will likely take a few years to see the full impact of this project. It is my feeling that the National Fire Academy will be actively making online part of the two-week residence program. Local and state fire training academies will implement online learning, modeled after this partnership. Online learning is here and it is here to stay. Regardless of your rank or years in the fire service, online learning will impact you. More and more state fire academies will be moving forward with online programs. Now is the time for you to familiarize yourself with the benefits and challenges of online learning.

PAUL ANTONELLIS JR., MA, CEAP, CAS, is a 20-plus-year veteran of the fire service and has held various positions, including chief of department of the Salisbury, MA, Fire-Rescue Department. In addition, he has 11 years of law enforcement experience. Antonellis is on the adjunct faculty of the Fire Science Program at Empire State College and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses at three other colleges. He has lectured to emergency service providers nationally and internationally. Antonellis has authored and published more than 25 articles and two books; his latest book is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Firefighters: The Calls That Stick with You. He holds a master's degree in labor policy studies with a concentration in human resource management, a bachelor's degree in fire service administration, and associate's degrees in criminal justice and in fire science technology.

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