It's midday in the town of Aberdeen, WA. Paramedic/firefighter Nick Swinhart sits down at the fire station's computer to attend class. Swinhart is enrolled in a college located almost 3,000 miles away in Washington, DC, where he is an undergraduate student in The George Washington University's Bachelor of Health Sciences EMS Management degree program. From the comforts of his station, he logs in and joins a growing number of emergency services professionals attending college via the Internet.
EMS Management Degree
Over the last 20 years, bachelor's programs around the country have been developed to meet the needs of future EMS leaders. More recently, this has expanded into a handful of graduate-level degree programs.
Brian Maguire is an associate professor and the director for distance learning at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in Baltimore, MD, which has the longest running EMS Management degree program in the country. He believes EMS degree programs have come at a great time in the industry.
"As the EMS profession evolves, I see a part of this evolution including a need for EMS managers to have a college-level education," says Maguire. "We saw this with doctors at the turn of the last century, then nursing, and now it's occurring in EMS."
Rick Fuller, assistant professor at Drexel University's EMS program in Philadelphia, PA, agrees.
"EMS programs may be experiencing the same thing as the nursing profession," Fuller says. "When we started looking at this situation, we saw that EMS degrees offered something that was missing in EMS."
Rooting ourselves in higher education is what Fuller believes will help EMS grow as an industry and a profession, with EMS degree programs offering participants the opportunity to take management theory and convert it into practical concepts.
"I would argue that education doesn't replace experience and experience doesn't replace education," he says. "They complement each other. An advanced EMS degree provides students with a broad body of knowledge that's applicable to EMS by taking mainstream concepts you might find in an MBA or MPH program and targeting them to specific EMS applications."
That's what Steve Hare, executive director of West End Fire Company #3 in Phoenixville, PA, a small suburb of Philadelphia, thought when he looked at UMBC to pursue his graduate degree.
"EMS was my career choice, and getting into UMBC has only enhanced my career," says Hare, who believes earning an advanced degree in EMS management will help him become an effective manager. He also views a graduate degree in EMS as an attribute that makes him stand out among his peers.
"I've been able to apply what I learned in class in my workplace," says Hare.
This is one of the real benefits of pursuing an EMS management degree versus a more traditional MBA or MPH, says Maguire.
"You can attend a traditional business school, but you won't learn key information needed to manage an EMS system," states Maguire. "We want graduates to be able to run an EMS agency and have a perspective of how EMS fits into the healthcare world."
EMS management curriculum includes course work in quality management, materials and fleet management, human resources, strategic and financial planning, reimbursement, law and policy, resource deployment and high-performance EMS systems. Classes are targeted at what EMS leaders need to know in order to run an effective and efficient emergency service.
"That's the best part for me," says Hare. "Every class relates to something going on at work, and I've been able to apply what I've learned. That's real-world application."
Tony Shrader, a paramedic, assistant training officer with the City of Pittsburgh Bureau of EMS and a Drexel University student, agrees with Hare. "When we talk about budgets in my courses, we talk about EMS budgets, not other industries."
But It's Online
"We are not a correspondence course," says Art Hsieh, an assistant professor at The George Washington University and past president of the National Association of EMS Educators.
When prospective students ask about the workload, he is upfront about the amount of work for an online degree program.
"The online program will have you working as hard as, if not harder than, a traditional classroom," he says.
Hare agrees. "Be prepared for a substantial amount of work," he says, cautioning future online students to remember that they need to be self-disciplined-no one will be prodding them along.
According to Hsieh, "As the online schools develop, students are becoming more comfortable with distance education, and the lines are starting to blur."
He's right. An increasing number of traditional universities are embracing distance learning. The University of Massachusetts, Penn State and the University of Texas at Austin are just a few of the "brick and mortar" schools that have developed degree programs for online delivery.
Convenience drives much of the growth in online student enrollment. Hsieh believes that adult workers no longer have time for a traditional classroom, and online programs offer a valid alternative.
"It provides a level of flexibility that traditional programs don't," says Fuller. "They're not locked into 6 p.m. Monday night like traditional face-to-face. Online education works when and where you want it."
Fuller sees many of his students juggling family, career and school commitments. They're motivated adult learners, and online delivery provides access they wouldn't get from a traditional program.
"I tend to do a lot of my schoolwork between calls at the station," says Swinhart. "Unless the tones are going off, I've got my nose in a book."
In general, online programs have a required amount of material to read or view each week and specific assignments to complete. Some assignments require student discussions about the material of the week. Although the classes function asynchronously (students and faculty don't have to log in at the same time), students share deadlines, which assists them in staying paced with their classmates.
The Virtual Classroom
Currently, there are several commercial online education programs offered by colleges and universities. Companies like WebCT, Blackboard and CentreLearn all offer platforms with similar features that mimic the traditional classroom experience. Through discussion boards, chat rooms and online content delivered in text, audio and video, professors and students can have a very active and vibrant virtual classroom experience.
Imagine being in a classroom where the PowerPoint slides change and update as the professor speaks, but the professor is behind you, and you can't see him or ask questions. At first, this may seem strange, but imagine the professor makes a point that you miss. In this virtual video lecture, you can stop and go back to hear what was said, or, even better, rewatch the whole presentation. If you can't sit through the entire lecture, you can stop and pick up later where you left off.
"Most of the lectures are digitized," says Maguire. "The student comes into the online classroom and has two to three lectures to view each week." Using a combination of PowerPoint slides and synchronized audio of a professor's lecture, UMBC recreates the traditional lecture online. Most lectures are cut into short segments of 15–20 minutes and can be viewed through a QuickTime Player slideshow.
Like a traditional brick-and-mortar program, online programs include reading assignments that supplement the lectures and discussions. Mainstream business books and academic textbooks remain the norm, but professors can also provide an array of online reading content, including presentation slide notes, published academic studies and pertinent articles scanned from EMS publications. Documents may be viewed in Microsoft Word, HTML and PDF, and may be read on the screen, saved for another time or printed for later use.
One feature available in many of the online programs is synchronous chat. Students can log in simultaneously and send typewritten messages back and forth to each other. This enables students to work together on a project or engage in real-time interaction.
Another great use for the chat feature is the ability to interact with guest speakers. A professor can connect audio and a Web cam to a computer to share a real-time interview with students who log in. Students can forward typewritten questions to the professor for the guest to answer.
In traditional school, a key piece to learning is the interaction among students and the professor. In the virtual classroom, this happens in the discussion board.
"A tremendous amount of interaction takes place when students share in a text-based discussion board asynchronously," says Maguire, who sees the discussion board as an asset to the student-to-student learning experience. "People from all around the world in essence sit together, work together and share together. When they approach a problem, the student from New Haven may raise a thought that causes the person from Austria to say, 'Wow, I hadn't thought of that.'"
Hare agrees. "It's interesting to learn that each system has its unique problems, as well as those common problems that we all share," he says.
While the discussion board can act as an informal virtual conversation space, it is also where discussions targeted specifically at the material are facilitated by the professor. Faculty must take an active role in the discussion boards. Hare believes a faculty member's role in the discussion board can make or break the learning experience.
"They need to post questions and assignments and be active," he says. "We'll be getting into a specific line of discussion, and the faculty will throw out something that's a little abstract and send us in a whole new direction."
For many, the discussion board can initially feel sterile and lack the cadence of the conversations they're used to, but as students post their thoughts and reply to others, the discussion board can become the soul of the online experience.
In Bears' Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning, co-author John Bear, PhD, describes accreditation as "a validation-a statement by a group of persons who are, theoretically, impartial experts in higher education, that a given school has been thoroughly investigated and found worthy of approval."1 In other words, accreditation ensures the courses you take are transferrable and the degree you earn is recognized by prospective employers.
Programs offered by traditional colleges and universities, including the ones mentioned in this article, are accredited by one of six regional accreditation agencies in the U.S.
If you are thinking of pursuing a distance education program from a nontraditional institution, you'll want to confirm its accreditation status and investigate which agency is responsible for its review.
"The hardest part of an online program is getting EMS people to accept it versus the traditional approach," says Annmary Thomas, an assistant professor at Drexel University. "It's a big change in how you present information and a big learning adjustment."
"I certainly recommend an online EMS management program," says Swinhart, who says, for him, the Internet opens the door to an education from a reputable university almost 3,000 miles away.
- Bear JB, Bear MP. Bears' Guide To Earning Degrees By Distance Learning, 14th Ed. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2001.