The ABCs of online education

When Laura Pettler decided to pursue her terminal degree, she already had a full plate. She headed the Crime Scene Reconstruction and Behavioral Analysis Program of North Carolina’s Prosecutorial District Twenty A with former District Attorney Michael...

Naples encourages prospective students to carefully evaluate their own learning styles before jumping online. Some individuals quickly grasp new concepts on their own, while others require more one-on-one attention. “The biggest challenge is often for people who have difficulty self-teaching, even though online training includes lectures, interactive materials, tutorials and more,” he says.

Most online programs spell out detailed requirements and expect students to follow them exactly. For instance, in Hardiman’s classes, students cannot simply state, “I agree” when commenting on another classmate’s post. They must apply critical thinking and make meaningful, substantive comments. “People who are not detail oriented may struggle,” says Pettler.

Computer skills also are essential to help students navigate the learning management software, upload assignments and post comments. For the computer literate these things present few challenges, but for those lacking this experience, there may be a tremendous learning curve, says Hardiman.

“But I’ve never heard of anyone not completing a program because they could not learn the software,” he is quick to add.

With the right attitude, these challenges can be overcome, says Naples. “If you have five people who want to be there and five who don’t in the classroom, the same comes into play when you put the programming on a computer — the five who don’t want to learn, won’t,” he says.

H is for homework

Prospective online students need to do their homework on the institution too, because not all online programs are created equal.

Accreditation, say these experts, is first and foremost the most important consideration.

“Educate yourself on accreditation. What is it? Why is it important? Does a school really need it? Should the overall university be accredited or just the programs? These are all important things to know,” says Pettler.

Accreditation is public notification that an institution or program meets standards of quality set forth by an accrediting agency, which may be either national or regional, says Hardiman, noting many police agencies seek degrees from regionally accredited institutions. Students need to find out what accreditation their departments recognize.

“You need to make sure that if you do all of this work it’s going to be recognized,” says Hardiman. “There are a lot of different programs out there.

Pettler advises students to consider the school and faculty’s reputation. “How is that school and its faculty connected to the field, the community and the world?” she asks.

This information can be gleaned from faculty bios, which are often found right on the institution’s Web site. “Where did these people come from? What are they doing with their careers?” she asks, pointing out that at Capella, Dr. Charles Tiffin, dean of the institution’s School of Public Service Leadership, worked in law enforcement for 30 years and is a Fulbright scholar. “When the faculty is connected to the community like that, they bring those resources to the university and it trickles down to the students,” she says.

Consider the program’s connections to other recognized law enforcement organizations, such as the FBI, CALEA or others, advises Naples. For instance, both AMU and MSU are partners with the FBI Academy and the Fraternal Order of Police, and The Response Network’s program partners with CALEA and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Pettler says the fact that Capella aligns itself with the FBI played heavily in her decision to attend the school’s online program. “I felt like if the FBI is paying full price for their agents to get a degree there, then it must be a good — and credible — program,” she says.

F is for the future

“Online education has become a form of legitimate training and education for law enforcement,” says Naples.

And for professionals, like Pettler, it’s often the only way to get that degree.

“In law enforcement, many times online education is the only way to get a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree,” says Hardiman. “The job is too demanding and the hours too unpredictable to do it any other way.”

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