Have you ever considered returning to school? Are you interested in completing a bachelor’s degree using your current educational accomplishments as a springboard? Do your goals include advanced degrees that would enable you to teach in a biomedical engineering program? All of these scholarly objectives are available as on-line learning opportunities, where the scholarship is real, even if the classroom is virtual.

 Back to School. The phrase generally conjures images of backpacks stocked with books and pencils; new clothes; maybe even that most important accessory, a new lunchbox.

For biomedical equipment technicians (BMETs) contemplating a return to school while on the job, however, a computer with an Internet connection for on-line course work and the “fastest typing

fingers in the West” are the more practical means of furthering an education. And for anyone who decides to attend a virtual classroom, there’s plenty of company out there on the World Wide Web.

A recent U.S. News and World Report article cites International Data Corp. (IDC of Framingham, Mass.) information that identified a dramatic increase in on-line enrollments, with a projected 2.2 million on-line student body by 2004. Further research indicates there are 150 institutions offering undergraduate degrees on-line and 200 affording graduate degrees on-line, according to a recent Bear Stearns (New York) study.

Do you want to change your career path to pursue a business management role? Do you want to complete a bachelor’s degree using your current educational accomplishments as a springboard? Do your goals include advanced degrees that would enable you to teach in a biomedical engineering program? Would you want to become a Web site designer? All of these objectives could be met in on-line learning opportunities.

Barbara Christe, M.C.E., serves as the director of the BMET program and assistant professor of Electrical Engineering Technology at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis. The school offers an associate degree program for BMETs on campus; at the same, it has several on-line certification programs designed with BMETs and other healthcare professionals in mind.

For example, Purdue offers an on-line certificate program in clinical laboratory equipment technology that could serve as a supplement to a BMETs existing background. Additional on-line courses include a general education course of anatomy and physiology for the healthcare provider; a class that explores a variety of pieces of medical equipment; and a basic, theory-only course in the fundamentals of radiology.

Further details about these courses is available at http://www.iupui.edu/~cletcrse/bmetonweb.htm.

“Most of my instructors are clinical engineers,” says Christe. Their clinical experience coupled with expertise of fellow students enriches the conversation during asynchronous postings to message boards, she points out.

The reality of virtual education
Anyone who harbors the misconception that on-line education is easier than classroom instruction needs to re-think that perception. Most high-quality on-line courses involve a combination of learning techniques, including lectures, team projects, written papers and exams, and they are designed to be highly interactive. Often college-level credit is conferred, and these institutions must meet rigorous standards for accreditation.    

“I teach for Purdue [University], and we grant Purdue degrees,” explains Christe. The school’s certificate programs are held to a high standard, as are all of the college degree-granting on-line programs described in this article.

Burks Oakley II, Ph.D., professor and director of University of (Urbana) Illinois Online explains that there are very few, if any, accredited engineering degrees available on-line at the bachelor’s level because of the difficulty in providing “hands on” laboratory experience. That barrier notwithstanding, the university offers numerous baccalaureate completion options for individuals who hold an associate’s degree.

The University of Illinois at Springfield Online (UIS) has a robust and varied selection of courses accessible through its portal http://on-line.uis.edu. Oakley explains that UIS, much like other on-line education providers, uses a course-management system that enables an instructor to post a syllabus, organize a discussion forum, and design links to lectures and other necessary information. Typical class size is 20 to 25 students, with faculty members from the university campus teaching the on-line offerings.

UIS employs Blackboard as the foundation to its courses, but other providers might use WebCT (for Web course tools) or other systems to facilitate Web capabilities. These systems enable a wide array of options to meet specific needs of the faculty member and the students.

For example, Oakley uses audiostreaming over PowerPoint slides so that students can hear the inflection in his voice and the emphasis he provides to certain concepts to add to their understanding of course material.

In addition to course-specific functionality, the system enables a variety of student services — which helps to make the on-line learner feel part of the college community. For example, access to the campus bookstore to order textbooks that are shipped to students’ homes; an on-line library with availability of all print materials in the school library in digital format; and the means to plug in to career services, tutoring and the studies skills center. Anything that a student might find on campus is in the process of being made available to on-line students.

There’s even an “introduction to on-line learning course” for students to take if they’re unsure about pursuing their education via computer.

Christe refers to Perdue’s use of “branching” to individualize information as a means of accommodating a specific student’s knowledge base and learning needs.

“I get such a wide variety of students with different abilities and experiences that I want to be able to support both ends of the spectrum,” she says.

Using an example of a medical treatment called ECMO (extra corporeal membrane oxygenation), Christe explains that the school would provide one link that gave the basics of this treatment technique — when it would be used and why — for the student who had not encountered this means of supporting a patient’s heart and lung function. For the on-line student who was quite familiar with the basics, there would be another link that would provide a higher level of explanation. An on-line course can provide this level of specificity for each student’s background and needs.

Terri Hedegaard-Bishop, senior vice president of public affairs for the University of Phoenix (Arizona), describes that school’s program as designed for a class size of nine students, to accomplish team as well as individual assignments. Students can begin a program of study any month of the year because the on-line programs have rolling enrollment. That means that almost every program begins anew each month, although occasionally a student may need to wait two months. The classes last five or six weeks, with students taking one class at a time. Classes are designed to accommodate working adults.

Students must be at least 23 years old to enroll in on-line offerings, and the average student age is 35. Most of the faculty members are professionals with advanced degrees in their fields.

The University of Phoenix has developed articulation agreements with many colleges so that a student with an associate’s degree would be able to complete a bachelor’s degree in about two-and-a-half years while working.

Webster University (St. Louis), with 100 campuses worldwide, includes primarily graduate degrees on-line, with its most popular course a master’s in Business Administration, launched in 1999. In addition to those graduate-level courses, Webster offers a Web-site Development certificate as an undergraduate program that involves six classes, or 18 credit hours of work.

Using WebCT as its course-management system, Webster University on-line subscribes to the same nine-week term as that followed on campus to provide an interactive learning environment complete with assignments and discussion.

“We offer five, nine-week terms a year — two in the fall, two in the spring and one in the summer,” remarks Webster’s Matt Nolan, director of graduate and evening student admission. To complete a 36-hour graduate program on-line typically would take 2.3 years, he notes. Diplomas granted to on-line students do not indicate that means of study: They are conferred as a master’s of Business Administration from Webster University.

On-line, on the Web

The following Web sites offer information about on-line learning. The list ends with a recap of sites mentioned in this story.


University of Illinois at Springfield http://on-line.uis.edu
If you want to explore an on-line course without signing up, go to bb.uis.edu.  At the prompt for login, use com333 as your user name. The password is … guest.

Western Governors University, http://www.wgu.edu

eLearners at http://elearners.com/index.asp  

Capella University, http://www.capella.edu

Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis http://www.iupui.edu/~cletcrse/bmetonweb.htm

University of Illinois at Springfield, http://on-line.uis.edu

University of Phoenix, http://www.phoenix.edu;

Webster University, http://www.webster.edu/worldclassroom/

Consider the pros and cons
You might think the best aspect about this method of obtaining your degree or a certificate in a field of interest is the fact that you can complete your course work in the most casual of attire: T-shirt and sweats, for example. Sure, that is an appealing option, but a more practical benefit is the flexibility of fitting your coursework around your already busy life. Students log on to engage in discussion at all times of day or night, so for people who work odd shifts, or for those whose job has them on the road, all that’s necessary to attend class is a computer and access to the Internet.

Most of these courses of study are designed to educate adults who are out in the workplace and who have experiences that enrich discussion. The courses are designed to assume a certain level of dedication and a willingness to participate, but the dialogue among working adults offers information that can prove valuable. Webster University’s Nolan says numerous students have told him that techniques they gained in class one day they used on the job the next.

C. A. Rawlings, Ph.D., C.C.E., professor and seminar director for Southern Illinois University (SIU of Carbondale, Ill.) mentions a couple of drawbacks to the on-line model.

His experience has led him to believe that most people learn best in small group settings with students and faculty in the same room. Rawlings is concerned that a sense of “apartness” could develop in an on-line learning environment, leading to students’ withdrawal from the program before completion.

The other issue Rawlings raises is cost: Many of these programs run hundreds of dollars per class, he notes. However, he acknowledges that if a student lived on campus, paying room and board, that alternative is just as expensive — maybe even more so.

U.S. News and World Report offers a wealth of information about on-line educational programs at http://www.usnews.com/

usnews/edu/elearning/elhome.htm including a cost comparison of 50 on-line graduate programs for engineering students for some courses of study. This Web site provides links to the schools and includes data such as when their on-line curricula were launched, the number of students enrolled (fall 2001), and limits on class size, if any.

On-line outlook
As technology continues to evolve, on-line education will be the beneficiary of the latest developments and trends.

Videoconferencing could provide another method for class participants to interact. As wireless technology improves, flexibility in how the on-line classroom is accessed should be enhanced. Virtual laboratories may be able to provide some of the educational components required by engineers. An increasing number of institutions of higher learning are becoming interested in developing on-line courses, which will increase available options.

Roger A. Bowles, M.S., C.B.E.T., master instructor in biomedical technology at Texas State Technical College (TSTC of Waco), which boasts a highly developed campus program for BMETs, says TSTC is considering a “blended” approach to on-line education.

The student would spend some time in campus laboratories while completing a portion of the course work on-line. That way, students who live some distance from the physical campus could engage in the lecture/discussion activities on-line, then travel only for an occasional evening or a weekend to accomplish the hands-on portion of the course.

Click your way to a degree
Opportunities abound for continuing education through on-line course work. And Rawlings is very impressed by the drive and dedication of BMETs and CEs he has met in his seminars who are highly motivated to obtain more education.

But like anything and everything, the road to success often starts with an honest self-assessment. Before you take the plunge, consider your goals and your learning style.

Ask the administrator in your organization if the hospital provides tuition reimbursement for on-line education.

Check out the accreditation of the institution that offers the course you are interested in taking.

Explore all options; ask questions; talk to colleagues who have gone the on-line learning route.