Administration and Leadership, Patient Care, Training

EMS Distance Learning Program Grows

Issue 7 and Volume 35.

Distance Education (DE) at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences is a relatively new option for obtaining a bachelor’s degree in emergency medicine. The emergency medicine (EM) program was established in 1997. For the first decade of the program, students were able to attend only according to a traditional, or “brick,” instructional model.

For many years, the faculty and staff of the EM program were approached by many individuals with a simple question: “Do you offer your program in a distance manner?” Unfortunately, for 10 years, the answer was, “We’re sorry to say that we don’t.”

Based on the demands of the profession, it was time for our faculty and staff to conduct an analysis of the situation and determine how the EM program could meet the developing needs of EMS community members seeking to obtain their degrees while remaining in their current locations across the country or the world.

In 2007, the EM program began to offer several of the senior-level classes in an asynchronous distance manner. The intended goal was achieved when we began to offer the University of Pittsburgh EM program in both traditional (“brick”) and distance education (“click”) models. This positioned the University of Pittsburgh to meet the needs of those EMS professionals wishing to attend classes on campus, as well as accommodate those EMS providers seeking to obtain a degree while remaining with their EMS service or at their home location.

An important aspect in the development of the “click” program is to ensure the level of academic rigor equals that of the “brick” program. Judging from the experience of the faculty and staff in their interaction with both groups of students, it’s suggested that the click model is actually more demanding for students because they’re responsible for the same content as the brick students but are required to produce more work to demonstrate retention of the information. This is typically in the form of written essays.

Pilot Test
Once it was determined that a click model was worth exploring, our faculty began to evaluate, design and develop possible ways to implement it.
After nearly two years of evaluation, our faculty began to pilot-test a selection of distance-based courses with several senior students. The pilot test click program demonstrated that this model offered students more flexibility with their schedules, especially if they wished to take other brick classes elsewhere in the university. This simple alteration in scheduling demonstrated to the faculty and students that other classes could easily be taken in addition to the required click classes in the curricula. More importantly, it proved that click classes could be successful for the entire senior year of the program.

Many models and methods of delivery were evaluated. This allowed the faculty and students to analyze the various methods, provide input and contribute to what would eventually become the acceptable platform of instruction for all classes in the senior year. During this period, the EM program predominantly used such online learning tools as the University of Pittsburgh’s CourseWeb instructional system. CourseWeb, a form of the BlackBoard course management system, allows students to gain access to course documents, discussion boards and podcasts.

Beta Test
The analysis and assessment of click instruction in the EM program took nearly a decade to fully complete. The program now has a curricula process in place that’s ideal for EMS professionals who are currently practicing as paramedics and recognize the need to obtain a bachelor’s degree in order to enhance their position in the job market. During the 2008–2009 academic year, only seven students were enrolled in the EM program’s click classes. During that year, one student, Lisle Evelyn, Jr., completed the program from his home in the U.S. Virgins Islands. Lisle was EM’s first distance education student to achieve what we set out to accomplish.

The model of instruction is predominately designed for EMS providers who already possess their paramedic certification (National Registry or state card) and who have successfully completed about two years (or 51 credits) of higher education at an accredited university. Both the brick and click programs are in a “two by two” format, meaning that the entire EM program of instruction is covered in the junior and senior year.

By design, the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences doesn’t offer a degree that encompasses all four years. Instead, the school works with the College of Arts and Sciences or the College of General Studies to allow students to easily transfer in their junior year after completing the prerequisite courses.

The following classes are “core” prerequisites, representing roughly 25 credits (dependent on the credits taken for each course): written communication, public speaking, math/statistics/computer science, natural science/psychology and EMT (with lab). In the EMT lab, students are expected to demonstrate competencies in the various skills learned in the EMT didactic course. These skills include (but aren’t limited to) the following: assessment, bandaging, splinting and the various devices used by EMTs.

In addition to these courses, 35 credits of additional undergraduate classes need to be completed. The following are some recommended courses that may assist students coming into health-related studies: anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, introduction to nutrition, lifespan and development, biology, exclusive of botany (with lab) and chemistry (with lab).

The preparatory format of instruction for the first two years allows students to obtain double majors, complete the prerequisite classes needed for other health-related professions or work with those students who started college in a major that wasn’t the “right fit.” Other admission criteria include having a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5 (based on 4.0), minimum prerequisite GPA of 2.5, and a minimum grade of C in all courses designated as prerequisites.

Senior Year Click Classes
Fall Term: Fifteen credits are required during this first term in the click program. The following classes are taken from the end of August until mid-December: Issues in health care, issues in health-care education, research methods, legal issues in EMS, finance and accounting, EMS management and beyond the body.

Spring Term: A total of 15 credits are required to be completed during this second term in the click program. The following classes are taken from the beginning of January until the end of April: issues in EMS, senior internship, EMS leadership, critical-care transport, organization theory and senior seminar. The senior seminar class requires that click students be present in Oakland, Pa., for three days during the last week of the semester. During this time, brick and click students are together in the classroom.

The intent is to have students earn their bachelor’s degree after one year in the program. However, some students decide to attend in a part-time manner. Both methods are acceptable.

Student Demographic
Because this program was designed for EMS professionals already working in the field who aren’t positioned to attend traditional educational programming, these students must have an associate’s degree or two years of education from an accredited university to benefit from the program.

As the program looked to address the needs of students seeking a distance education program, we initially intended to meet the needs of those students who already possess a paramedic certification. To date, this continues to be the population we seek for the distance education program.

Although the intent was to establish this program for students in the profession outside the geographical area of southwestern Pennsylvania, many of our regional students have expressed interest in the click program. Many brick students complete their junior year of instruction and obtain their National Registry certification and are finding employment in the profession. Rather than miss out on completing the remaining year of their university education, they choose to complete their senior year in a click format.

The Future
Our goal is to explore how the paramedic portion of the program may be offered in a click model. This portion of the program is integrated with the paramedic programming started at the Center for Emergency Medicine in 1982.

At this point, we see two aspects of the paramedic program that would need to be addressed. The first is the task of offering virtual versions of the eight teaching sessions that take place over the two terms. The faculty has already begun capturing most of these presentations in a digital format, so the transition should be an easy one.

The second, more complex aspect of this undertaking would be in ensuring a quality educational experience for the students with appropriate academic rigor by positioning an outlying organization to address the practical lab sessions (four hours per week for 15 weeks), the field rotations (320 hours), the clinical needs (280 hours) and the summative field evaluation (120 hours) of a paramedic program in a click format. JEMS

This article originally appeared in July 2010 JEMS as “Click Education.”