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Online learning creates opportunities

May 1, 2008
by Edna Salcedo Talboy
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Instructors talk of closer bonds with students through the Internet

An increasing number of individuals are choosing to take substance abuse certification courses for college credit online. Iris Wilkinson, EdD, coordinator of the addiction counseling certificate program at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, recalls the changes she has seen across her state since online learning first became available there in 1997. “The development, the growth has been amazing,” Wilkinson says. “In addition to the program at Washburn, Kansas now has online addiction programs for academic credit at Kansas City Kansas Community College, Butler Community College, Allen Community College, and Fort Hays State University's Virtual College.”

Anita Reach, instructor and former coordinator of the addictions counseling program at Kansas City Kansas Community College, co-taught the first online substance abuse course in the state; she and Wilkinson received Addiction Technology Transfer Center (ATTC) seed money for development of the course. “It was also the first online course offered by Kansas City Kansas Community College,” Reach says. “We had eight students from different parts of the state in that first class. I was amazed that people were willing to take a course online—it was something so new. By the spring of 1998 there were 56 online students college-wide. Now, in 2008, we have about 160 online students with substance abuse counseling as their declared major.”

Nancy A. Roget, project director of the Mountain West ATTC, helped spearhead development of online substance abuse courses for the University of Nevada, Reno, and she too saw students quickly embrace the format. “We offered our first academic credit online class in 2003. By 2005 we had six classes in an addictions minor. Currently, registration averages well over 200 students per semester for these courses.”

Instructors who have become comfortable with online learning are confident that those pursuing or already working in the addiction field not only will continue to embrace online educational opportunities, but will demand them. Basic demographic trends offer part of the explanation for this.

Competitiveness in today's workplace demands higher qualifications and more specialized knowledge, spurring growth in U.S. adult enrollment in postsecondary education that is projected to continue through 2015.1 Less than 20% of the more than 17 million people enrolled in higher education fit the typical image of the youngster living on a college campus for four years.2 Many of today's students are working adults who are studying part-time. Because these individuals must juggle work, family, and school responsibilities, the flexibility that online coursework allows is welcomed.

In traditional classrooms, communication and interaction are “synchronous,” meaning they occur in real time. In a typical online course, however, learners access materials and interact with the instructor and peers via the Internet, with little or no face-to-face contact. Interactions online are usually “asynchronous,” where participants are separated by time—much in the way we interact when we send e-mail. Students can “come to class” and do their work online at whatever hour is most convenient within the scheduled time frame, usually a week. Students are still part of a learning community, and courses still follow the academic semester or quarter schedule of the institution.

Time is not the only problem facing potential students in the addiction field. Particularly in more rural locations, the problem is one of access. “Many people live geographically removed from institutions that offer a substance abuse counseling degree,” Wilkinson says. “One of my students works in an outpatient clinic in the state of Washington. The closest college was something like 150 miles away, so traditional classroom courses were not a realistic option. Taking courses online, however, makes it possible for students to realize their academic goals.”

The overall statistics on the influence of online learning are startling. In the fall of 2002, about 1.6 million students were taking at least one online course at degree-granting institutions of higher education in the United States; by the fall of 2004, that number had risen to more than 2.3 million.3

Course structures

Developing high-quality online courses requires a significant investment of time, effort, and resources. Rather than have multiple institutions duplicate that effort, institutions may establish cooperative agreements so that students can take needed courses online at one school while getting credit toward their degree at another. “In our Mountain West region,” Roget explains, “we currently work with Montana Tech (of the University of Montana), the University of Utah, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Cooperative agreements with the University of Wyoming are in progress.”

Institutions offer academic online courses needed for substance abuse certification in a variety of ways:

  • As part of the requirements for an associate's degree;

  • As part of the requirements for a bachelor's degree;

  • As part of an agreement between two institutions where a student first obtains an associate's degree from one institution (typically a community college) and then completes requirements for a bachelor's degree at a university; and

  • As part of a “minor” or “specialization” in substance abuse that is taken in addition to the student's major course of study for a bachelor's or master's degree.

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