Enterprise Education Summer 2017

Unity’s online distance education program continues to grow

“You no longer have to move to Unity, Maine, to get a Unity College education.“

As part of its comprehensive distance education initiative, Unity College offers an M.S. of Professional Science degree online since October of last year — the first graduate degree ever offered at America’s Environmental College, and the first degree it’s ever offered completely online.

Nine months into the program, Chief Distance Education Officer Dr. Amy Arnett said they are forging ahead with about 22 dedicated students from all over the country, from Texas to California, ranging between ages 24 to 65 years old. The first master’s graduates are currently on track to finish their degrees this upcoming fall.

“It’s been great. I’ve been able to hire instructors both from Unity College and across the country — and our retention is really high,” Arnett said about the program. “We’re able to recruit more diverse students and faculty because of this online environment. You no longer have to move to little Unity, Maine, to get a Unity College education. It really allows us to take our sustainability science mission to a broader audience.”

Adjunct Professor Shaik Hossain, for example, would have never been able to teach at Unity College if it weren’t for the accessibility of the online master’s program. An ecologist by training, Hossain’s particular research is focused on quantitative plant ecology, and he was working at the time of his last course as a research scientist in Austin, Texas.

Hossain said he chose Unity because the idea of working for America’s Environmental College sat perfectly with his research and world views. His March 2017 course in Landscape Ecology also offered him the opportunity to continue teaching, his “deepest passion,” with the convenience of doing so outside the hours of his full-time job.

“The good side is that students can learn and interact with their professor and colleagues online at convenient times. And the class size was very manageable for me and my students,” he said. “But during an in-class course you can sit with a student and address their concerns face-to-face — it’s a very different dynamic. Both modes of teaching have their up and down sides. I found it very interesting, teaching online, and I was very happy to have the opportunity.”

Arnett concedes that online learning isn’t for everyone. Working in forums and through e-mail means that learning is much more student driven than a residential-style, instructor-driven undergraduate course. With no set class times, students have the opportunity to work on a course when it best suits them, and deadlines for assignments and class discussion are much more flexible, meaning instructors don’t have obvious opportunities to prompt students into action.

There are some real benefits to the delay, however, Arnett explained. Discussions in online courses are “much more advanced” than those generally had in real-time courses, as students have more time to formulate and think about their responses. The relative privacy of a computer screen also takes much of the timidity out of class participation, and a diversity of backgrounds and locations bring different life experiences to the table.

“Our main focus now is getting the word out about the programs. How do we keep moving forward and get known for them? Get our name out there? Master’s is the new undergrad — more and more people are looking for this education,” Arnett said. “We’re very happy with how much we’ve grown when we’ve only been active for such a short period. It’s exciting to think about what the future holds.”