Is it possible to offer a quality child development program entirely online? This is a question we have been asking ourselves for several years and with more frequency and urgency recently as online learning as a delivery format has grown exponentially. At the City Colleges of Chicago, we currently have 4 of 10 core courses for the AAS degree offered online, with an additional 2 Infant Toddler courses available as well. This is less than half of the required courses and only about 30 percent of the required content credits. This keeps us solidly in the “safe” zone. We have choices for students who want to explore online learning, or who want to take as many courses as possible online yet we still require students to take the majority of our content in a traditional face-to-face classroom.
When this subject comes up, we inevitably revisit the “goodness of fit” argument, how can we know whether or not our students will be a “good fit for the field” if we have never met them? Often, it takes more than one semester to determine if a career working with young children and families is an appropriate choice for students. Often, it takes longer for students to determine for themselves if they will be a good fit for the field, at times not asking or answering the question until they are deeply ensconced in the field work right at the end of the program. At this point, it is very late and a lot of time, energy and money has been expended to realize that there will not be a job at the end of the journey.
Our online offerings are currently 100-level, introductory courses. These courses are generally well-enrolled and students perform consistently in them. In fact, we have found that students who stay in their online courses tend to be strong and determined, disciplined and organized. Those who are not going to make it in an online environment, tend to drop the class very early on, or they simply disappear. Is this a sign that our successful online students will be successful early childhood professionals? Of course not. We all know that these qualities do not go hand-in-hand nor are they mutually exclusive.
It has been my experience that I am unable to determine “goodness of fit” until I actually observe students in the field interacting with children. Time and again, I have been both pleasantly surprised by students who I was unsure of previously, and mildly aghast at others who seemed to have all of the qualities we value but were unable to put it all together when put in front of children. (More often than not, I am pleasantly surprised.) Students who find themselves struggling in their placements usually surprise themselves as well; “I thought I would love this, but I do not,” or “I love taking care of my nephew, but these kids are nothing like my nephew.” Fortunately, these students can finish the degree and then use it for something other than direct service.
This takes me back to the original question: Can we offer a quality early childhood program entirely online? I think we can but with the caveat that field work must still be scrupulously supervised and we need to have “goodness of fit” assessment woven throughout the program. Just as we want several entrance ramps into our programs we must ensure that there are adequate exit ramps as well.
Jennifer Asimow is an Associate Professor in the Child Development Program at Harold Washington College.