Earning a degree online sounded like the perfect solution for busy professionals when colleges first introduced the degrees about 20 years ago. Yet, while the offerings have been a huge help, they’re not yet perfect: Colleges are regularly fine-tuning their programs to offer greater flexibility and value to busy, hardworking adults who wish to push themselves to the next rung on the career ladder.

When Tina, a hospital administrator from Chesapeake, decided to earn her master’s in education, she knew she’d have to squeeze in coursework between 50-hour work weeks and 15 hours spent weekly with her children’s baseball and soccer teams. An online program was key, yet she hesitated before signing up; she had always liked being in the classroom.

Fortunately, she was able to find a program that offered both in-person classes and online courses that, through interactive technology, gave her the feel of being in class—even if she was sitting in her living room.

“I chose Regent University,” Tina says. “I liked it for the obvious reason, flexibility in doing the readings and watching videos on my time. While I had some ‘set’ conference times, it wasn’t bad, and because I live close, it was easy to take three classes in person. I looked forward to going in, and it was easy to get to campus.”

Building teams with technology

She found the university’s Blackboard software easy to maneuver and essential in building teams with classmates.

“Everything is at your fingertips—assignments, grades, discussion boards, library access. The library access is big; you can access anything from your home,” Tina notes. “Plus we had video conferencing and pictures of ourselves online. It was like Facebook, with social networking within the campus if you chose to use it that way. It’s pretty fun to talk online and then meet up on Saturday to work on a project.”

At Sentara College for Health Sciences, administrators promote a similar team environment.

Angela Taylor, dean for academic affairs, initiated the school’s online RN-to-BSN (registered nurse to bachelor’s of nursing degree) program when she joined the staff. She continues to perfect the program.

“We’re dedicated to ‘high-touch,’ instead of ‘high-tech,’ even though we’re an online program,” Angela says. “We want students to feel valued and cared for.”

She’s looking to have students form cohorts, groups that will work together throughout their online program.

“It might be a group of nurses from a hospital or a group that forms organically as they bond online through one of their first classes,” Angela says.

Beginning with the basics

Another change the school is making is offering introductory courses every semester online. In the past, the school could only present the foundation courses during the fall semester. Students might struggle when they decided to start their courses in January and had to take more advanced courses first without having taken the basic courses yet.

Old-school orientations

Angela plans an orientation day for students. It’s a face-to-face, full-day orientation held at the school’s Chesapeake campus.

“We get computers set up and get software downloaded,” Angela says. “The students meet a lot of the faculty and the program director.”

Jiving with their jobs

Students can’t help but be better on the job when they apply information they’ve learned in college classes. Sentara College for Health Sciences takes the link between school and work a step further in three ways: It first grants credit for life experience; then it asks students to create work portfolios with samples of classwork that they can present during job interviews; and it requires students to complete a final project that solves a problem. The problem is usually a concern they experience at work.

“We have them develop and implement an evidence-based project,” Angela says. “I think it’s a win for everybody.”

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