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Interview: Pam Youngs-Maher, Online Learning, Onondaga Community College

Pam Youngs-Maher, Director of Distance Learning for Onondaga Community College joins us today to discuss distance education.

Tell us about the distance learning programs offered at Onondaga Community College.

Onondaga Community College currently offers appoximately 50 Associate degrees, with six of those fully online. The six online degree programs are:

Business Administration A.S.
Criminal Justice A.S.
General Studies A.A.
Human Services A.S.
Humanities A.A.
Math Science A.A.
A certificate program in Early Childhood Certificate is available.

We are in the process of building several additional online degree programs and will be rolling them out over the next three to four years. Two of the degrees that are near completion for online delivery include our new Liberal Arts/Adolescent Education A.A. (Teacher Education Transfer) degree, and our Labor Studies A.S. degree.

Our goal in putting degrees online is to increase access to education for working and parenting students, and for those with geographic or place bound constraints that prevent them from coming to campus. Having said that, we also have a number of degrees where at least 50% of the required courses can be completed online. Many adult students are able to juggle work and/or family and college by taking a mixture of traditional face-to-face (F2F) courses on campus or off campus with online courses in order to complete their degree in a timelier manner.

What is the typical duration of each of your programs?

Most of our Associate's degrees require between 62 to 65 credits. Students attending full time typically complete a degree in two years. However, many of our students who take online courses attend Onondaga part time as they juggle other commitments, so depending on how many courses and credit hours they are able to fit into their lives each semester, they may take longer to complete a degree program.

What would you say makes Onondaga Community College programs different and better than other comparable online programs?

When Onondaga Community College decided to offer complete degrees online, we built some foundation pieces into our online program. Of primary importance to students are our 4 Cornerstones. Each online section is built with attention to Teaching Presence (faculty and students alike are engaged in sharing perspectives and helping each other learn), and Social Presence (infusing the instructor's personality and a good deal of interaction into the course). The third element is Active Learning " being very clear in our expectations that students have an active role in succeeding online, and clearly articulating our expectations. And the fourth and final cornerstone is Academic Integrity. We explain what academic honesty means, and that all members of the class are part of a learning community which depends on the members doing their work, and recognizing the work of others. We also explain right up front the penalties for cheating, and invite students to document that they have read our document about academic integrity and understand the principles and the consequences for violating the policy. This has helped us tremendously in both avoiding problems, and in processing those instances where students do cheat.

From a student perspective, we offer very affordable courses relative to the price tag of private colleges since we are part of the SUNY system. Equally important, the college has committed to a smaller sections with online sections " no more than 20 students. Some courses have a lower cap, such as our Italian and German sections as well as some math courses.

Finally, we only build a certain number of new online courses each term. Our instructional design team partners with our faculty in building sound online courses without being stretched too thin or releasing courses that don't fit our online degrees. The fact that our Distance Learning Staff review every online course and read every document with an eye toward student learning before the course runs helps make for a better experience for our students.

How important would you say accreditation is when choosing an online college?

Given that we award Associate degrees, it is very important for all degree programs and students. Students as consumers need to know that when they get ready to transfer to a 4 year degree program their courses and credits will be accepted at the college they attend next. Most of the online degrees we offer are transfer degrees. The transfer process is much easier with a degree from an accredited SUNY College.

Onondaga Community College is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) which has international recognition for quality. Onondaga Community College is regionally accredited by Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. This accreditation process occurs every ten years. Students earning degrees who choose not to transfer are served equally well by this accreditation process that examines the quality of the degrees conferred by Onondaga.

There is some debate as to whether or not online degrees are as worthwhile as traditional degrees. What steps does Onondaga Community College take to ensure that online students are receiving the same education that they'd receive in a classroom?

We have about 70 faculty teaching online for us. More than 80% are full time faculty teaching our traditional courses. Several of our adjuncts are retired faculty, too, so most online students are learning from the same faculty who teach on campus for us.

I would also refer to the 4 Cornerstones mentioned earlier. Each course is built with quality in mind, and is reviewed with an eye for those benchmarks. The faculty who build online courses do so in partnership with our online learning department. We provide 15 hours of faculty development workshops in online pedagogy and tools in the Learning Management System at our college (we use ANGEL), another four to six hours of planned one on one time with the faculty developer, another 10-12 hours per course reviewing the design and the flow of the online section, and then unlimited assistance at the request of any faculty member building a course. Our online sections are really built with a lot of attention to detail and quality. The syllabus for the online section is the same as the one for the face-to-face (F2F) sections. What differs is the selection of teaching and learning strategies; you can't simply put a F2F course into an online template and meet the 4 cornerstones.

Onondaga's faculty often come to our office after a year of teaching online and tell us how they believe the experience has made them better educators - online and in their F2F sections. They also believe many students open up online and perform better than they do F2F.

The last point is that when a student receives his or her transcript or diploma, there is no mention that the course/program was online. So another college or employer won't see a difference.

What would you say are some of the benefits of earning a degree online rather than in a traditional classroom?

Honestly, we know from the research available that online learning is not for everyone. Those students who are disciplined and motivated to earn a degree tend to do better online than others. And, adult students who know what they want to learn and value education tend to migrate to the online medium when they can't pursue their degree F2F. So for those students who start out with the motivation and the discipline to get on the computer at least 3 days a week for each course and do the reading, the homework, and meet the established deadlines " they build even better organizational skills. Many build stronger computer literacy skills too, though you need a good set of computer skills to start an online program.

Perhaps the most often cited benefits we hear from our online learners include: 1 " getting to know their classmates and professors better than they did in face to face courses, 2 " really developing a proficiency in how to learn (active learning), and 3 " getting the courses or degree that might not have come to fruition otherwise.

If a student enrolled in one of your programs was interested in finding an internship in their field in their area, do you have any means of assisting them in acquiring an internship position?

Actually, a couple of our online degrees include internships. The Human Service degree has internship/field placement requirements in early childhood, teaching, social work or alcohol and substance abuse counseling depending on which option one selects in that degree.

The faculty are often able to facilitate internship opportunities. Often students come to us with employment experience in these locations but need a degree to move ahead in their career. Students in the Criminal Justice program also need work place experience to complete their degree, and again faculty are often able to facilitate this process. Many faculty are part of professional networks that connect them with people who can assist students around the state, and sometimes around the country.

Is financial aid available to students in your programs?

Yes, students who are matriculated in our degree programs (i.e. applied to the college and admitted as a student) are eligible for financial aid. They must be at least half-time (taking 6 or more credit hours in a term (fall, spring or summer) and be in good academic standing with the college. Students must also be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen, not be in default or owe a refund for any federal student aid, and if applicable, must be registered with the Selective Service.

Financial aid is based primarily on a student's need for assistance and will not be denied based on race, creed, color, sex, age, disability, national origin, sexual orientation or status as a disabled or Vietnam veteran. Aid is available in several forms. Grants and scholarships may be awarded on merit and need; student loans approved must be repaid with interest, and work-study programs can provide work experience while the student pursues a degree or certificate. Various sources are tapped for financial aid, including the federal government, NY state, institutional and private sources.

Do you have any advice for students enrolling in online classes for the first time?

1 " Make sure you have a good computer, good reading skills, and a desire to learn!

2 " Make sure you can carve out the hours needed each week for each course (this depends on the course and what the professor expects, as well as the length of term " 5, 7, 10 or 14 weeks).

3 " If the college offers an orientation, take advantage of it so you know how to navigate online!

4 " Be sure to advocate for yourself when you have questions or concerns; online courses require students to be active learners. Be polite, but make sure you have a clear picture of what the schedule of assignments will be, the policy for add/drop, and how to access online services such as tutoring.

What do you enjoy most about your position at Onondaga Community College?

I am passionate about online learning. It has a leveling influence for a lot of our students; those students who find this a match with their learning style or who can't come to campus often perform better in online classes. They can think about their answers rather than dive into rapid fire discussions in the F2F class, they can spend time working on the course when it is convenient for them���.

Our online faculty have become staunch advocates for online teaching. Many of them like the level of interaction with their students, and they often tell us this has given them new energy and a new perspective on teaching and learning. So we are clearly providing increased access to education for hundreds of learners based on the data we have, and we are providing a learning environment that some students just thrive in. Again, it's not for everyone, but many like it as much or better than traditional classes. Last, we've helped many faculty feel a sense of renewal in their role in helping our students become better lifelong learners. Who could ask for more?!

To Request more information about the distance learning programs available through Onondaga Community College, Go here to visit them online.

Thank you Pam, for sharing and participating in this piece for Online Degrees 2.0

That concludes our interview!

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