Margaret Fetting, PhD, would not come across as the likeliest candidate for excelling as an instructor in an online learning environment. She composed the text for her latest book, Perspectives on Addiction (published by Sage), not using a word processor or other electronic device, but in longhand.
When originally approached with the idea of teaching some of her courses at the University of Southern California (USC) in an online format, “I was aghast at this,” the adjunct professor recalls. Now, she says her experience in distance education has even served to enhance her teaching skills “on the ground,” in the conventional classrooms where she still teaches classes as well.
“It has forced an organization of the process and content of my teaching that has enhanced my on-ground teaching,” says Fetting, one of the instructor’s in USC’s first-in-the-nation entirely web-based master’s of social work (MSW) academic program.
Individuals such as Fetting serve as important case studies to illustrate the potential benefits of online education for addiction professionals, in that their arguably surprising experiences help shatter many myths that persist about distance learning. Those who believe distance learning will revolutionize professional education can easily rattle off the most prominent comments from naysayers, from the notion that the programs are not academically rigorous to the criticism that they are populated by legions of unscrupulous, money-grabbing educational institutions.
A publication issued by another California institution, California Southern University, cites a 2009 U.S. Department of Education report stating that in general, students who received all or part of their education online performed better than students who received only face-to-face instruction.
The California Southern University publication quotes Michael Lambert, executive director of the accrediting Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), who states, “Of course, there are those with closed minds on the topic who may never be persuaded, remaining steadfast in their perception that learning can only take place in the resident class setting. Maybe a percentage will never be convinced. But this  survey is one more piece of evidence that the method of education is powerful and it works.”
Reflecting learning styles
Observers often say that the distance learner must be more motivated and self-disciplined than the individual doing coursework in a conventional setting, but in some ways Fetting believes the distance learning environment represents a more natural fit for today’s students young and old.
To her, rather than having a student sit through a three-hour lecture of hers, having the student review an hour and 15 minutes of “asynchronous” pre-class material online and then participate in a class of equal duration online makes a great deal more sense. “That’s the way the human mind learns,” she says, especially for busy people who have trouble scheduling attendance at lengthy class sessions that require significant transportation time as well.
The asynchronous content for Fetting’s classes might include transcripts of interviews with leaders in the addiction field, or audiotapes of lectures that Fetting has prepared. The online classes themselves are limited to 14 students in the online classroom; students need only a broadband hookup, a webcam, a headset and a telephone connection to participate. To envision what the class “looks like” online, picture the opening sequence of faces from television’s “The Brady Bunch.”
Fetting was pleasantly surprised that most of what is achieved in a traditional classroom setting can be duplicated online. “It takes some time, but you can create an emotional climate in the room,” she says.
She adds, “The only thing that is different is that [student] participation is really important online. In class, if I have someone who doesn’t like to talk, I can make eye contact with them in order to engage them. That’s a little difficult online, so I’m assertive about participation.”
In essence, Fetting believes each student’s progress must be monitored more closely in the distance learning format, as “it’s an easy place to slip through the cracks.”
She acknowledges that USC’s move to offer an entirely web-based MSW program was not without controversy during the formative stages. But it has also proven extremely popular, with more than 800 students now in the virtual learning setting as compared with about 1,200 in the school’s on-ground academic programs for the MSW.
Having the online option also has offered a personal benefit for Fetting, who now can conduct classes when visiting her partner who lives in Europe. A student can participate in an early-morning class in the States that Fetting is conducting at the end of the day from her remote location, and the process is seamless for everyone.
Who this appeals to
A professor in the behavioral sciences school at Northcentral University, a regionally accredited institution that conducts all of its degree programs in a distance learning format, says his institution’s offerings tend to appeal to individuals who want and need to continue working as they further their education.
“We tend to have an average age that’s a little older than what you see at the brick-and-mortar settings,” says James Tille, PhD. “Some are completing one career and wanting to go into another.” Coursework at Northcentral also can be taken on a non-degree basis.