Making the Grade

May 21, 2007
The number of accredited online education programs is increasing, offering career flexibility and continuing education opportunities for pharmaceutical professionals.

Any working professional contemplating going back to school faces a decision that may involve commuting or even family relocation, taking a leave of absence, and work/life balance challenges. Fortunately, a growing number of institutions are making this process easier by reevaluating the needs of professional students and offering online/distance-learning degree programs and certificates.

According to “Making the Grade: Online Education in the U.S.,” a recent survey by Babson College’s Survey Research Group, the demand for online education is growing faster than that for traditional education, with two-thirds of the very largest institutions having fully online programs compared with one-sixth of the smallest.

For pharmaceutical professionals, online options such as MBAs in Pharmaceutical Management, MS or ME degrees in Pharma Manufacturing, and Doctor of Pharmacy programs recently have been made available for the working student. The current higher education student population is estimated to be 17 million, with online students now representing close to 17 percent of the total. These numbers are increasing as word spreads of the online option.

However, with many institutions promoting online degrees, academic leaders are raising questions as to the effectiveness, integrity and cost-value of such “new age” learning, and whether online learning can ever fully compare to the classroom-based approach.

For a comprehensive list of pharma online/distance learning programs click here.

Virtual Classrooms

Taking courses via distance learning gives working professionals a viable option for continuing their education and improving their position. Job and family responsibilities can make it difficult for professionals to afford time to attend a campus class several times per week for years at a time. Various-sized institutions believe online education is important to their long-term strategies and are making great strides in improving their technologies.

Drexel’s LeBow Institute, for example, which offers an online MBA in Pharmaceutical Management, employs various forms of multimedia, including MP3s and podcasts, e-mail and threaded discussions, audio-visual lectures, virtual labs and teleconferences and interactive exams/quizzes. The majority of communication between faculty and student need not occur in real time, offering more flexibility and convenience for the degree-seeker.

According to Dr. Robert Zotti, program director of Stevens WebCampus, which offers an MS in Pharma Manufacturing, advances in online learning technologies have greatly aided educators in the delivery of courses. For example, web-conferencing applications (both real-time and recorded) give students the opportunity to hear from the instructor and to talk to their online classmates. “Instructors who utilize these features report that the level of interaction has vastly improved over the ‘early days’ when the primary mode of communication (for online learning) was through email and discussion boards,” Zotti says.

With new technology on the horizon and 61 percent of academic leaders believing that online education is critical to the long-term strategy of their institutions’ doctoral and master’s programs, there will be an increase in the variety of programs offered to meet the needs of today’s professionals – in particular, the pharma professional.

The Great Debate

Any new or innovative idea is often met with hesitation and opposition, and the same holds true for some academics regarding online education. While academic leaders are very positive about many aspects of online education – with 62 percent of chief academic officers rating learning outcomes for online instruction as the same or superior to those for face-to-face instruction – some barriers have prevented several institutions from offering distance learning options.

For example, online instruction requires additional time, effort and resource organization when compared to classroom-based learning. Also, institutions must keep abreast of changes in multimedia in order to constantly improve their means of communication. Insufficient faculty acceptance has stunted the growth of many online programs, and a fear of undisciplined students still remains when offering full degrees in an online format. An estimated 63 percent of academic leaders have cited student discipline to succeed as the largest barrier to widespread adoption of online learning.

Catherine Heyneman, assistant director of the online Pharm.D. program at Idaho State University argues, “Flexibility is a double-edged sword. It comes down to motivation. Students who are internally motivated want to complete the program and excel because they want to better themselves as practitioners. They tend to set a schedule and stick to it.”

On the other hand, Heyneman sees problems with students who are externally motivated or feel pressured to get the Pharm.D. degree – be it from an employer or from their peers. These students tend to procrastinate and not do well without a cohort of fellow students and a defined schedule to spur them on.

Distance learning programs become what students make of them, experts suggest, and with a higher success rate for graduates, online degree opportunities in such niche fields as pharmaceutical manufacturing should continue to increase.

Stanley Weber, director of the Doctor of Pharmacy program at the University of Washington, sees an optimistic outlook for online degree programs for pharmaceutical professionals.

“I feel that the students in our external Pharm.D. program are more mature learners. They are older professionals who have been in the business and know what they need in order to better their capabilities and careers,” he says. “They are extremely disciplined and able to apply their daily learning in their everyday professions. Our online learning programs are becoming more popular by the semester.”

Employer’s Perspective

While online degree programs are relatively new, many may question how a finished degree will measure up in comparison with its face-to-face counterparts to employers. For the most part, faculty are not concerned with the legitimacy of online education in the eyes of employers as a barrier to online education. Only 14.7% of academic leaders question the value of online education in terms of learning outcomes and job potential.

“If anything, I feel employers view the online programs as more difficult,” believes Bruce Rosenthal, graduate faculty director at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia’s Department of Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Business. “It takes certain qualities in a student to succeed in a program like ours [MBA in Pharmaceutical Business], such as self-motivation, comfort with ambiguity, etc. In the Internet age, many middle managers understand the impact the Internet will have on the future of the business world and see online learning as a perfect fit to prepare for what’s to come.”

While the Internet and multimedia continue to dominate the business world, it is only fitting that education follow suit. Although online learning may never entirely replace classroom-based education, it offers a current solution for the working professional seeking higher education.

For a comprehensive list of pharma online/distance learning programs click here.

About the Author

Michele Vaccarello | Digital Managing Editor