UF’s online learning programs provide degrees despite distance
By Shayna Brouker
Adrien Zap plops down on the bed, sighs and opens her laptop. Just the day before, she was shuttling supplies to veterinarians scrambling to soothe traumatized pets left behind by the hundreds of people that died or fled from Sendai, hit hardest by the tsunami on March 11. Today, she’s settled in a hotel room in Tokyo, Japan, trying her best to review notes and complete assignments between aftershocks that shake the building.
As part of a veterinary disaster relief response team for an organization called World Vets, she spent seven exhausting days reuniting pets with their owners and helping local veterinarians find scarce food and supplies for injured and abandoned animals.
But now it was time to study. After all, Zap, a Connecticut resident, had a final exam to take later in the month in Gainesville, more than 7,000 miles away. It was the last step to complete her online master’s of science degree in forensic toxicology.
This wasn’t the first time she has had to cram on the fly, literally; Zap applied to the distance learning program in the summer of 2009 while helping run a spay-and-neuter clinic in the Galapagos Islands. That December, she spent her days working at the clinic and her nights taking final exams in a hotel room in Cabrera, Dominican Republic.
In January 2010, she completed assignments in a hotel in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, where she was working with World Vets to sterilize spider monkeys at a local primate sanctuary. She spent that summer in Ibarra, Ecuador, researching sodium fluoroacetate poisoning in cats and dogs.
Zap credits her success in the distance learning program to her professors.
“When I wrote to my professors that I was going to Japan, one of them replied, ‘The last thing you should be worrying about just now is your studies …Take care of yourself and I wish you the best of luck in what lies ahead for you and your colleagues. We’ll be thinking of you,’” she says. “That was such a huge relief to know they were willing to work with my hectic schedule and sporadic Internet access.”
Zap graduated in April with her master’s degree. The UF College of Pharmacy’s award-winning Online Forensic Science Master’s Program made it possible. This prestigious program is just one of the ways UF is helping students earn an education anywhere. The College of Pharmacy, in particular, is known nationally as a leader in distance education, but other HSC colleges, including Nursing and Public Health and Health Professions are making their own dent in distance learning, too.
>>>A pioneer in forensic science<<<
Now entering its 11th year, UF’s Online Forensic Science Master’s Program has graduated more than 650 working scholars like Zap, who, in addition to working as a veterinary technician for the past 13 years and helping pets from Haiti to Japan, wanted to further her education.
The UF forensic program is a pioneer in postgraduate education, fusing the latest learning technology with the community of the Web and, of course, top-notch instruction. In 2006, the American Distance Education Consortium gave the program its Award of Excellence in Distance Education.
This May, Program Director Ian Tebbett, Ph.D., received the highest honor from the consortium — the Irving Award for outstanding leadership. He also won the 2010 Outstanding Leadership Award from the U.S. Distance Learning Association.
Tebbett, a professor in the College of Pharmacy, founded the program in the fall of 2000 with 20 students and two courses. After the Florida Department of Law Enforcement caught wind of it and wanted to train its employees in forensics, the program expanded to include six degree tracks with between 700 and 1,000 students from every state and 35 countries.
These students include military investigators serving overseas, crime scene investigators and even teachers who want to mix forensics in the classroom to make science fun.
“If someone can log on to a state university website in the middle of a natural disaster on the other side of the world in Japan, we can reach anyone in the world,” Tebbett says. “We are very pleased that we can be a part of an effort like that as well as with the military. And the discussions that come out of that are so interesting, from students all over the world, from different walks of life and professions. This is the way of the future.”
>>>For the worker bees<<<
The idea for online master’s degrees grew from earlier success in the College of Pharmacy’s Working Professional Doctor of Pharmacy Degree program, known as the WPPD. Launched nationally in 1994, the program gave registered pharmacists with a bachelor’s degree an opportunity to study the UF pharmacy curriculum by meeting with clinical facilitators in their regional cities.
More than 1,600 pharmacists across the United States, Canada and the Caribbean have earned the UF Pharm.D. degree through the WPPD program.
“I think that pharmacists in particular, like all health care professionals, are keenly aware of the need to continue learning. The drugs we learned in pharmacy school aren’t the ones we use today,” says Sven Normann, Pharm.D., an associate dean for distance, continuing and executive education and director of the WPPD. “But the realities of the world are that pharmacists are not able to quit their jobs and obligations to families to adapt to changes and acquire new knowledge and skills. We offer those folks the opportunity to achieve lifelong professional dreams.”
Though the need for pharmacists with bachelor’s degrees to seek the Pharm.D. will diminish as more earn these credentials, the need for training in managing patient medication is now growing, Normann says. The college answered the demand by starting an online master of science in pharmacy in medication therapy management this May with 12 students across the United States.
Also, in 2006, David Brushwood, R.Ph., J.D., started the online master’s of science in pharmacy in the department of pharmaceutical outcomes and policy. Two-hundred fifteen students — and growing — learn areas of specializations in drug regulatory sciences related to policy, patient safety, clinical research and pharmacoeconomics.
Like the other distance programs, it caters to working professionals with obligations to full-time jobs and families.
>>>Online but still on-task<<<
Each distance learning program differs slightly in its purpose and requirements, but the basic design is the same: Students take one course at a time and have anywhere from two to seven years to complete the requirements. They come to Gainesville just one to three times a year to attend seminars and exams, often scheduled the same weekend for convenience.
A learning platform called Sakai serves as both virtual classroom and teacher’s desk. It’s used to store recorded lectures, administer exams, keep track of grades and host online discussion forums.
Elluminate is the highly interactive, live online learning system where courses are held. Like Skype or video chat, students can raise their hand, ask a question and talk with the professor. If students face a problem, instructors reply via email within days.
Both students and instructors say the Internet environment enhances rather than dilutes the engaging air of a traditional classroom.
“People are far more comfortable with the technology of today, like email, text, Skype and smartphones, than they are raising their hand in a classroom,” Tebbett says. “My favorite quote from a student is, ‘There is far more interaction online than in any other brick-and-mortar classroom setting.’”
And students can take breaks in their coursework if necessary.
“What we’re trying to do is meet students’ needs,” Brushwood says. “Flexibility is the key to success. We have to make it possible for them to learn in their own way.”
To debunk another misconception of distance learning, it’s no walk in the park. The college has standards that must be upheld, Brushwood notes. An online degree is no different in difficulty from one earned in the classroom, and those in the College of Pharmacy maintain the same standards required by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education.
“Some people sign up and think they will just sit back, listen to the speakers and get some credit,” Normann says. “It’s not easy, but it’s doable. And a degree from UF — one of the top 10 pharmacy schools in the country — is something to be proud of.”
Until a moratorium was placed on offering the Pharm.D. to those outside the U.S., the Working Professional Doctor of Pharmacy Degree program was popular among German pharmacists eager to learn Americans’ clinical approach to patient care. The interest among German pharmacists, who typically serve more in a chemist role, led the college to start another new online master’s program in clinical pharmacy for European pharmacists, beginning in Germany this fall.
Other colleges at the Health Science Center have “taken to the cloud,” too. The College of Nursing launched its Doctor of Nursing Practice program, or DNP, in 2006 to eventually replace its master’s degree options for advanced practice nursing specialties. UF was one of the first colleges in the state to offer the program in accordance with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s call for educational transformation.
Being able to earn the DNP from anywhere in Florida is a boon to working professional advanced practice nurses who already have their master’s degrees but want to keep up with the national trend. Sixty-seven students were enrolled in the online postmaster’s DNP in spring 2011. The program sees growth ahead, as the master’s program will be completely phased out by 2014.
>>>Public health programs<<<
The College of Public Health and Health Professions also started its online certificate in public health in 2006 and then the master’s program in 2008. Vrunda Sakharkar, M.D., a gynecologist trained in India, has earned both.
Sakharkar was impressed with the quality of the program after her husband Prashant completed the Working Professional Doctor of Pharmacy Degree program in 2007. As a lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Nassau, the Bahamas, she wanted to expand her knowledge base while passing it on to her students. Besides, she too enjoyed “the whole excitement of being a student.”
“I don’t think I was a bad doctor before, but I think (the degree) made me a better doctor. I look at problems a little more globally rather than saying, ‘Just take this tablet and you’ll be fine,’” she says. “It will help me in my teaching directly when I’m guiding grad and postgrad students.”
For graduates, the accomplishment of earning a degree online is no less significant than if they had sat in a classroom. For most, it’s enough to merit a trip to Gainesville just to walk across that stage.
Fourteen students from the online master’s in pharmaceutical outcomes and policy program and two from the online forensic science program attended the College of Pharmacy’s graduation ceremony April 29.
One student, Sadaf Taiyeb, a mother of two, earned her master’s of science in pharmacy with a concentration in patient safety and risk management in December 2010. But she waited to walk until the graduation ceremony in April so her family could fly from Dubai to be there.
They almost didn’t make it due to a family illness. But her main role model, her father, says despite that he wouldn’t miss her walk. It was important to him and their family, and she had worked extremely hard the past two years to earn her degree.
“There were times I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?” she says. “A couple of times I almost had a nervous breakdown during midterms and finals. I was on the computer for 24 hours straight and slept just three hours a night.”
But, she says, finally holding her hard-earned degree in hand made all the stress worth it. With the support of her parents, brother, sister-in-law, husband and daughters, she did it.
“Walking across the stage makes you forget all the stress you went through,” she says. “Now I have the satisfaction that I earned it for (my family). I told them, ‘I did this for you, now you need to do the same.’”
Her next step? Taiyeb plans to apply for jobs as a patient safety representative at pharmaceutical companies or hospitals.
“I know for sure this is going to open up doors for me,” she says.
— Maria Belen Farias contributed to this story.