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Online courses and degree programs may have been unusual 10 years ago, but today they’re becoming part of mainstream education—especially as colleges and universities rely on the platform more than ever. And, if you’ve been thinking about a career in an allied health field, you might already know that online education is common in the field, ideal for many career-seekers like busy parents, people who work full time and need a flexible schedule, and students who aren’t ready to give up their day job yet. But you might still have reservations, and questions: Is online education high quality? Is it right for you? Which programs can you trust? And, what should you look for in an online school?
“There are definitely high-quality online programs available nationally in allied health fields,” says Francie Mooney, CMA, secretary of the Washington chapter of the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) and program coordinator for medical assisting at North Seattle College, referring to the wide range of supporting healthcare fields, from medical assistants and pharmacy technicians to certified nursing assistants and medical billers. In accredited programs for these professions, requirements for coursework and graduation are generally the same for online and traditional programs, and diplomas don’t specify whether they were earned online or on campus, says Chantal de la Rionda, who is an editor at 2U, an online program management company (OPM).
“The healthcare field is concerned with patient outcomes, backed by evidence-based practice,” says de la Rionda, who is also a registered nurse and a former online student herself and has experienced online learning from both sides. “Employers know that to be an effective clinician, yes, earning a degree from an accredited university is important, but so, too, is applied clinical experience that’s earned on the job. Patients and families aren’t asking for your CV when you are treating them. What they want and deserve is compassionate attention, balanced with sound medicine and decision-making.” Armed with the right information, you’ll be able to decide if online learning in an allied health field—whether it’s one class, a certificate program, or a degree—is right for you.
Which Healthcare Programs are Offered Online?
Online education is common in allied health fields. At some point in your career in allied health, you are likely to take at least a few online classes to meet basic requirements, obtain a certificate, acquire continuing education credits—or, even, obtain a degree. In fact, if you already work in an allied health field, you have probably taken an online HIPAA training class to learn about the rules and requirements for protecting private patient information and received a certificate of completion that you had to show your employer.
You might be surprised by the various fields of healthcare in which you can pursue education online. What you learn online versus in-person will vary by field and program, but you can study many subject areas, at least partially online, including but not limited to:
Who is Online Learning Best For?
At first glance, being able to take classes when it’s convenient for you—anytime day or night—is an attractive alternative to attending classes on campus. But it’s not for everybody. To succeed, you must be fully committed, self-driven, and well organized. Prioritizing and managing course time around your busy personal schedule is the key to success.
“Definitely think about the time commitment that you will need,” Mooney advises. Classes in the allied health fields include “a lot of reading, memorizing, and writing.”
Other skills and habits for success include:
If you aren’t well organized, are shy about asking questions, have trouble prioritizing, dive in before you’ve prepared, don’t keep good track of due dates, and generally “wing it” in most situations, you probably don’t have the personal discipline required to successfully complete an online program.
Pros and Cons of Online Education
- You’re in control
- Flexible schedule
- Job friendly
- Advanced technology makes it work
- Global access to top programs
- The classroom is anywhere you are
- May cost less
- May graduate faster
- Limited social interaction
- Less structured
- You’re on your own
- Requires intense focus and self-discipline
- Easier to procrastinate
- Technology can be intimidating
- History of scams
- May never finish
Is it Easier and Faster?
People often think online courses will be easier than courses taught in a classroom, but experts say they can actually be more difficult. “I love online classes, and I like teaching them,” Mooney says. “But it is a lot of work for students and instructors, so be prepared.”
Independent learners who are organized and manage their time well can thrive online.
Going online requires more discipline and self-direction. It’s also more one-way—and that can be hard for people who miss the social interaction of a bricks-and-mortar classroom. And because you don’t have as much interaction, your ability to learn from others is somewhat diminished and you may end up doing more work to learn the subject matter on your own.
But independent learners can thrive. Online programs can be faster when they include classes that let you work at your own pace.
What Should I Look for When Choosing an Online School?
As you search for the right school, pay attention to the answers to the following questions.
Does the Program Feel Like a Good Fit?
“Understand what you want, and choose the program that gives you that,” de la Rionda says. “Research the faculty; find out who they are and what their qualifications are. Think about your ROI (return on investment); don’t just select a school ranked number one. Consider the amount of time and money you’ll invest and compare that against what you really want to do and what you’ll likely earn.”
Joseph Rendeiro, an editor at 2U who is enrolled in an online graduate degree program, advises looking at a school’s culture (yes, even online schools have a culture) when evaluating online programs. “Look at the course work, focus, and culture to decide if a program is right for you,” he says. “Some programs are really designed for working professionals and may emphasize building networks with fellow entrepreneurs, for example. Others might have a more traditional academic or research-oriented focus.”
What Types of Schools Offer Online Programs in Allied Health Fields?
Some entry-level positions in allied health require a high school diploma or GED and a training course or two. Other positions require one to two years of study and a certificate or associate’s degree. Still others require a bachelor’s or a master’s degree.
As a result, there are a wide range of schools that offer online programs in the allied health field. These include for-profit online only and classroom-based schools; vocational and technical schools; community colleges; and four-year colleges and universities.
Which is best for you? That depends on your goals, the educational and training requirements of the career you pick, and your financial situation. Medical billing and coding and medical assistants can often get the education they need at training institutes and vocational schools that offer certificates, while a physical therapist or speech pathologist likely requires a traditional four-year degree.
Is the Program You’re Looking at Accredited?
“It is critical to make sure the school is accredited,” de la Rionda says. You won’t be able to apply for financial aid, or transfer credits from one school to another, if you aren’t enrolled in an accredited school. Equally important, many employers won’t hire workers who don’t have a degree or certificate from an accredited school and program. This can limit where you work, how much you’ll make, and your career advancement.
If you don’t choose an accredited school, you won’t be able to apply for financial aid or apply for many jobs in your field.
Does the Program Offer a Concentration or Area of Focus You Want to Study?
Schools and programs list specific required classes and electives for graduation on their websites, and you can easily review them to make sure your area of interest is covered. Mooney suggests also connecting with the program coordinator or advisor early in your school search process.
What Qualifications Do Faculty Need to Have?
Online faculty meet the same qualifications as their counterparts teaching in traditional programs. Most institutions of higher education require that professors have a minimum of a doctoral degree in an academic field of study and be subject matter experts in the field in which they teach.
Online faculty meet the same qualifications as their counterparts in traditional programs.
At schools where certificates are delivered, faculty professional experience may be more important than a doctorate-level degree. Technical schools, for-profits, and community colleges will often use clinicians, lecturers, and graduates to teach in associate and certificate programs. These instructors will generally have a bachelor’s or master’s degree, with work experience in the field.
What Are the Requirements and Prerequisites for Admission to a Program?
For admission to certificate, undergraduate, and graduate online degree programs in allied health, students need to meet the same requirements as they would for traditional classroom programs. These requirements will vary, depending on the program and the school. For certificate schools that can prepare you for medical billing and coding jobs, for example, you only need a high school diploma or equivalent. For other areas of study that require a four-year degree, you might need standardized test scores (such as SATs), essays, and other admission requirements.
Mooney says it’s important to talk about a program’s prerequisites and course of study with the advisors or coordinators for that program. “They will have the most knowledge of the program,” she says.
Is Career Counseling Available?
Schools with online allied health programs often work with students to prepare them for career options, and most program advisors also assist or guide students in securing any clinical hands-on training they may need. Even better, program advisors and directors are well aware of local and regional job opportunities, and prospective employers will often contact them about job openings, giving students an inside shot.
How Do Online Courses Work?
In many ways, getting an online education is a lot like being on social media. With social media, while not everyone is online when you are, you feel engaged and connected. The same holds true for your online classroom community.
Using web-based learning management systems (LMS) such as Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, or a school-specific proprietary LMS, schools create an online classroom environment in which students do the same things they’d do in traditional classrooms: turn in assignments, access course content, interact with their professors and other students, take quizzes, share information, form study groups, and collaborate on projects. In fact, that same software, which was initially designed for online learning, is now also used to provide additional structure and support for many traditional classrooms.
The main differences between online learning and classroom learning are:
Web-based learning systems create an online classroom environment in which students can turn in assignments, interact with their professors, form study groups, and more.
Rendeiro’s online classes includes both asynchronous and synchronous sessions. “The live classes are really good,” he says. In the virtual classroom, “You are face to face with classmates and professors. The professor can call on you and you have to participate. There’s nowhere to hide.” Said another way, there’s no more back row like you’d find in a traditional classroom, where the students who sat up front controlled the discussion.
Other advances in technology have made online programs more engaging for students and professors. For example, some classes use virtual reality and AI in online practicums. “There’s proven success with virtual field practice for social workers,” says Rendeiro. “According to researchers, social workers who did virtual fieldwork with simulated clients before starting on-the-ground field work went into their internships with higher skill levels than students in campus programs who typically go straight into their internships their first semester.” The researchers said the online students may actually be better prepared because of the virtual practicums.
How Is Class Delivered? How Do I Get Assignments?
The classroom experience is orchestrated through the LMS. Students have dashboards that provide schedules, assignments, lectures, instructional materials, and access to their records, grades, and class data. Some schools may use dated technology or proprietary software, which, though functional, may diminish a student’s experience. When checking out schools, ask about the LMS the school uses and request a demonstration.
What Tools Will I Use?
Your tools could be a phone, laptop, tablet, or desktop computer—your choice. Desktops and laptops work better than tablets or phones (although a phone is fine for reading, checking assignments, etc.).
You’ll also need an internet browser and basics like word processing and spreadsheet software. In addition, you’ll use the school’s LMS software and potentially apps like Slack, FaceTime, Google Meet, Webex, or Zoom for video conferencing, webinars, screen sharing, and class meetings.
What Are the Technical Requirements?
Schools post technical guidelines online and provide robust technical support so that technology is not a barrier for students. For the most part, the tools and classroom software are web-based. Generally, you’ll need a device with reliable internet access; a high-speed connection is recommended. Wired internet connections are highly recommended for proctored tests and live video.
School websites will specify the minimum requirements for PCs, Macs, and browsers. Generally, Chrome, Firefox, and Safari are recommended; Internet Explorer and Edge are often not recommended and are not supported in some environments.
What Is the Best At-Home Setup for Online Learning?
One of the great things about online classes is that you can study anywhere, including at the picnic table out back under the big oak tree. But experts recommend you set aside dedicated space for school. It can be a small space, but you’ll want to keep it organized and free of clutter so you can concentrate. A quiet, comfortable location is best, with your computer, printer, lighting, bookshelves, and files at hand. And don’t forget the headphones, especially if your dedicated space is in the family room.
With online classes you can study anywhere, but experts recommend you set aside dedicated space at home or the office.
Do I Need Textbooks?
In some cases, textbooks will be online. In others, they can be ordered or may not be required. Schools routinely provide guidance to online students on textbooks and obtaining other class materials.
Do I Need to Be Physically Present for Anything?
The advisor for the allied health program you’re considering will clarify this for you. In general, almost all curriculum is online, but there are some exceptions, depending on the school. For example, some science classes may require in-person lab work. Some schools ask students to attend an orientation. Some courses may require proctored testing, which can be arranged locally.
And some classes are a hybrid, or blended, meaning that while most of the course is online, there may be times when you meet with the instructor and other students in person. Your advisor will walk you through the options for these situations.
How Do I Connect with My Professor for Office Hours or Questions?
You’ll email, text, and call. Instructors have designated office hours and are often available throughout the day, often via a video conferencing platform such as Zoom or something similar.
Can I Take Classes Part Time or Operate at My Own Pace?
This will depend on the school and the program you have chosen. In general, you have a lot of flexibility to determine when you study, and you can generally set your own pace, within limits. Many students pursue programs on a part time basis. However, most schools require that you complete the overall program within a certain time frame.
You might be able to complete some online classes at your own pace, but others might follow the school quarter or semester calendar and have set deadlines.
For example, if you’re working toward a certificate that normally takes 18 months, your school may stipulate that you complete the program within three years from the time you start. Other programs and schools offer online classes on the same schedule as their traditional classes, meaning that you must finish classes each quarter or semester.
What Kind of Academic Support Is Available for Online Students?
Like traditional students, online students have access to a wide range of campus resources from the comfort of their home, or office—or local park. In many cases, tech support is 24/7. Other support services may include:
How Much Does an Online Certificate Program or Degree Cost?
Online programs can sometimes cost less than traditional classroom learning (but not always), depending on the type of school and the program you select.
Most schools and colleges post estimated costs for tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, personal expenses, and transportation. Your school’s website is the best place to look for this information. When estimating costs, if you’re looking at a commuter or online versus a residential program, online students can leave out room and board and reduce the cost of some other items.
Some schools charge by the quarter or semester, and some charge per unit or credit hour for online classes. How that rate compares to in-person classes varies widely by school. Also, if you’re an out-of-state online student, in some cases, you may be required to pay the non-resident tuition at a publicly funded college (check your school’s website). The National Center for Education Statistics reports total costs for tuition and living expenses for undergraduate degrees (associate’s and bachelor’s) and graduate degrees (master’s and doctorate).
Is Financial Aid Available?
Both financial aid and scholarships are available to online students enrolled in accredited programs and schools. Your search for scholarships and financial aid will begin with the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The U.S. Department of Education’s site on federal student aid is a good resource for beginning your search.
There are a significant number of scholarships available for students in allied health fields. Some are based on need or grade point average, and some are contingent on a student’s willingness to work in a rural area or an underserved community for a time after graduation. Other scholarships are awarded to students based on their program or academic department.
There are a significant number of scholarships available for students in allied health fields.
Most schools provide detailed information on their websites about available scholarships and how to apply, as well as the process for seeking financial aid. Your program advisor can help you sort through the possibilities. The College Board offers good tips on avoiding scholarship scams.
Will an Online Degree Affect My Career or Salary?
“Not that I am aware of,” says Mooney regarding earning potential for job candidates with traditional vs online degrees. Online programs and traditional programs for allied health roles are comparable, and certificates and degrees don’t indicate whether a program was in the classroom or online. In fact, online study isn’t unusual for allied health professionals. As a result, employers tend to focus on your knowledge, experience, and work history. “You gotta have the chops,” de la Rionda says, emphasizing that employers care more about your clinical knowledge and job experience than that your degree might have been online.
The Future of Online Education
When it comes to possibilities in online education, it’s a whole new world, given major advances in technology and the Covid-19 global pandemic.
Jennifer Mathes, PhD and CEO of Online Learning Consortium, describes this time in education as a “defining moment for online learning,” as faculty and students around the globe rapidly pivot to offer courses remotely. It’s been a rough transition, as most of these new members to the online education community have had little training and less support. What’s become very clear to Mathes is that we’ll need to include online education planning and implementation in disaster recovery playbooks “before the next disruption rocks our world.” And that means, in the meantime, that everyday offerings are only going to improve.
New technology is rapidly changing the future of higher education, according to Jon Marcus, who reported in the New York Times that “the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality could improve learning and lower costs.” Imagine online classrooms augmented with virtual tutors, AIs that alert an advisor when a student appears to be struggling, and avatars that simulate patients in training scenarios. While those enhancements are not yet ready for prime time, we already see hints of the future in the newest learning management system platforms: beautiful, intuitive applications that are easy to use—designed expressly to meet the needs of students and faculty.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” de la Rionda says. “This pandemic will drive massive innovation.” Rendeiro adds that the pandemic is forcing a re-evaluation of how education is going to occur. He expects the pace of innovation to increase dramatically and for online education to become more widely embraced, as a result of current events. According to de la Rionda, “more schools are beginning to transfer courses to online; it’s a creative solution to inherent problems presented by the current pandemic.” This means that even if you haven’t taken online courses before, online education is sure to be a part of your future.
Quiz: Is Online Education Right for You?
Hooray! You’re thinking of going back to school. Now you’re weighing the pros and cons of learning in a traditional classroom setting or getting your certificate or degree online. Which is best for you? Let’s find out.
Read each statement below and respond either:
Yes, absolutely, or Maybe/not sure
Keep track of your answers.
- You’re committed and very sure about your career goals. You really want to do this.
- You’ve thought about all your work and family obligations, and you can carve out the time for online classes.
- You are organized, focused, task-oriented, self-motivated, and work well on your own.
- You aren’t intimidated by technology. You can order online, chat with friends, stream video and download apps like a champ.
- You’ve got back-up. You can count on friends and family for emotional support and help with the kids and pets.
- You’ll be comfortable reaching out to instructors and fellow classmates when you have questions about coursework or technical issues.
OK, it’s time to tabulate your answers.
If you answered, “yes” to five or six statements, you’re likely good to go for online classes. You appear to be independent, disciplined, and confident enough to handle the online classroom environment. You have a support system in place, and you’ve thought carefully about what you want to do.
If you answered “maybe” or not sure to three or four statements, you may not be ready to tackle an online program. Do more thinking about what you want to accomplish and further investigate your options before pursuing an online program. If you have concerns about technology or about reaching out to instructors and classmates but really want to make online learning work, instructors and advisors will help you sort out what to expect from online students and help you navigate through the system.
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