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 Parker; coordinated the district’s Cold Case Task Force; and in her spare time operated her own business, Carolina Forensics LLC.

With all of this going on, this crime scene reconstructionist certainly wasn’t able to sit in a classroom a set number of hours every week.

“My job required me to be available 24 hours a day,” she explains.

But Pettler says she felt a Ph.D. was essential in her quest to contribute to law enforcement, public service and society as a whole.

Online education offered the perfect fit for her specific circumstances. Capella University’s online education program enabled her to pursue her doctorate degree in public safety, and just over three years later she had it, along with a newfound understanding of her profession.

“This degree helped me take my company to the next level,” she says. “The work I’m doing at this time would have been impossible without it. This journey helped me not only recognize the science of what I was doing but also the art in everything I was doing, and it put me in a position to speak on my craft and really contribute to the field.”

D is for degree

Many police departments only require a high school education and academy training to work as a police officer, but that is beginning to change. Numerous agencies now require at least an associate’s degree, and some metropolitan departments even seek a bachelor’s degree.

Tim Hardiman, manager of law enforcement programs at American Military University (AMU), which is part of the American University System, agrees and says he wants to see more officers obtain advanced degrees. He draws upon experiences, as a former precinct commander for the New York City Police Department, when he says he believes higher education for law enforcement is good for “the profession, the department and the community.”

“The police academy is very good at telling officers what to do but a higher education teaches them why they do what they do, which leads to better decision making when a situation doesn’t exactly fit into a procedure,” he says, noting officers with advanced degrees typically possess better analytical and writing skills than those without.

And, says Brad Naples, CEO and founder of The Response Network LLC, a firm offering integrated online training for first responders, a well-trained force reduces officer, department and community risk. “If officers are not well trained and do not understand certain aspects of the law, it exposes the department to lawsuits,” he says. “The worst case scenario is a situation where an officer or citizen gets injured unnecessarily because the officer is not well trained.”

He says the director of a department The Response Network currently works with said it best when he stated: “I can pay now for some extra training or pay a whole lot more in a lawsuit later.”

L is for life

But as Pettler’s story indicates, life can be a stumbling block to those in a profession where irregular hours make it impractical and even impossible for officers to commit to coursework on campus.

“Online education allows officers to go to school and work at the same time,” says Pettler. “They still have to balance family life and work. It still requires commitment and sacrifice. But online learning can be easier from the standpoint that you don’t have to go to a physical class.”

Most (but not all) online training and education is designed to be asynchronous, meaning students are not required to log in to their virtual classrooms at set times every week to participate in discussions with classmates and professors. If two law enforcement officers enroll in the same class — and one works days and the other nights, both can participate in the class on their own time.

This represents a key advantage, says Hardiman, especially when you consider that some departments schedule officers for four 10-hour shifts or three 12-hour shifts each week. Driving to campus to attend class after such a long day proves very difficult.

“When I went for my master’s degree, I had to drive into Manhattan, which was a 2-hour round trip,” Hardiman recalls. “That’s 2 hours I could have been dedicating to my studies.”

D is also for diversity

Hardiman recalls attending a community college, while in the U.S. Marine Corps, to obtain his undergraduate degree. “The class was 100-percent military,” he says. “When I went for my master’s degree, the class was 98-percent police officers.”

In the classes he teaches at MSU, the student population is far more diverse. “There are active military members, civilians with no law enforcement experience, military spouses, active duty cops from all ranks, and students from across the globe,” he says.

With such varying backgrounds, students learn as much from each other as they do from their professors or their textbooks, he adds. For instance, younger people, who have not yet entered the profession, provide insight into what today’s young officers are like, how they think, what they like, what they know and what they don’t. Veteran professionals, meanwhile, can share their on-the-job experiences.

Hardiman relates a story about a class discussion regarding felony car stops. The debate covered everything from whether or not they should be called felony car stops to the correct procedural steps to take when making the stop. (Do you ask the driver to walk to the sound of your voice or tell him to take three steps back and two to the side? If he has a firearm, do you have him remove it or ask him to keep it where it is?)

“We had people posting their department’s policies and things they’d learned from classes they’ve taken,” he says. “Then we had people sharing actual experiences. Then there was the textbook discussion. It was fascinating and by the end I knew for sure my students had a solid grasp on the material.”

These discussions arise naturally from the framework of most online courses. An online course is not a correspondence course; where students complete an assignment and e-mail it to their instructors. In Hardiman’s classes, for instance, students receive a weekly reading assignment, coupled with information from the instructor and supplemental materials that may include everything from a journal article to a video. He then requires students to do their own research and post information to the discussion board by Thursday. At this point, students must comment on at least two of their classmates’ posts between Thursday and Sunday night.

“By the end of the week, you’ve read my notes, you’ve read the assigned reading, you’ve read the textbook, you’ve done your own research, you’ve analyzed and commented on two of your classmates’ postings, and you have a pretty good handle on the topic,” he says.

Pettler, who also teaches courses online, says she finds online education far more interactive than traditional education. “There’s a lot more interaction between students and instructors and between students and other students,” she says. “I really enjoy the collaboration.”

B is for beware

But be warned, says Pettler, online education is not easier, as some falsely believe.

“I found it to be quite the opposite,” she says. “For one, there’s a lot more writing involved. You are going to spend as much time learning to write as you are learning the material.”

Because of this intensity online education is not for everyone.

Pettler explains online programming works best for self-motivated, organized individuals who know how to prioritize.

Hardiman agrees, “If you lack the discipline to get your work done at a certain time, if you procrastinate or put things off, online education can be difficult because you don’t have the structure and you might push your studies down the priority list until you’re playing catch up.”

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.”