Online college helps students go the distance

BY PENNY DICKERSON
DAYTONA TIMES

Kevin Finnie was a Bethune-Cookman University star running back in 1989. An athletic scholarship helped him break stats as one of former Coach Larry Little’s best rushers. But for Finnie, life and learning have since slowed down.

Today, the 48-year-old father lives in Miami. He is a prostate cancer survivor who dropped out of college nine credits short of earning his bachelor’s degree. But thanks to B-CU’s newly certified online college, he re-enrolled in January to complete studies as a liberal arts major and minor in criminal justice.

Finnie is scheduled to meet all academic requirements by December and will finally achieve his life’s missing link – an earned degree as a B-CU Wildcat.

Determined to finish
Brittany Starling’s academic path parallels Finnie’s with a few exceptions. The 26-year-old St. Petersburg native enrolled at B-CU in 2007 as a traditional student, but through 2012, her enrollment status remained intermittent.

150910_dt_front02At one juncture, Starling left to attend South Daytona’s International Academy where she earned a cosmetology certification. Her initial goal was to obtain her Exceptional Student Education degree and become an ESE teacher, but “life happened.”

She returned to Albany, Ga. to live with her mother and three college-enrolled siblings. As the oldest, Starling wanted to send a resonate message to them all: “We have to finish what we start.”

Once again, the B-CU Online College enabled a student to achieve a dream. Starling is currently enrolled online in six courses as a psychology major who says, “I’ve grown older and my own experiences have influenced my decision to become a counseling psychologist.”

These two stories illustrate the significance of B-CU’s Online College as the first college in the state and second HBCU to obtain certification as reported last week by the Daytona Times.

Stamp of approval
“Certification is not a gatekeeper to high-quality programs, but as an HBCU that’s first in the state, this stamp of approval means you have been recognized as a member of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) certification team,” stated Dr. Arletha McSwain, dean for the Online College and professor of education at B-CU.

McSwain previously held the position as the dean of extended learning and professor of education at Norfolk State University (NSU) where she provided leadership and academic expertise to support the design, development and execution of the distance education programs in keeping with accreditation and federal guidelines. As a result, NSU became the first HBCU in the nation to receive USDLA certification.

“The USDLA certification of the B-CU online program recognizes the legitimacy and credibility of our online program,” stated Dr. Richard A. Buckelew, associate professor of history at B-CU. “This is based upon the vision and leadership of Dr. McSwain, and the work of a superior faculty characterized by professionalism and a commitment to academic excellence.”

Phenomenal expert
The path to certification was an arduous process, but not too daunting for a leader of McSwain’s caliber. A graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with a Ph.D. in early childhood special education, she is a nationally known content expert on issues related to early childhood education, and early childhood special education while targeting males of diversity.

McSwain has written grant proposals totaling over $6 million and serves as an early childhood special education program development consultant who mentors professional peers. She is the recipient of the 2013 Phenomenal Woman Award bestowed by the NSU WoMen’s Economic Development Center (WEDC) and the 2011 award recipient for Innovative Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Technology-International Conference on College Teaching and Learning.

She is widely published and part of a cohort of content experts who review personnel grant proposals for the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

High fives for McSwain
“Dr. McSwain is awesome!” exclaimed Starling, who had grown accustomed to going on campus to see advisors and staff.

“I contacted Dr. McSwain in early August and being out of state made things difficult, but she guided me and helped me. Whenever you call Dr. McSwain, she calls back in reasonable time and makes sure it’s resolved and handled in the right way. She genuinely cares about student’s success,” she added.

B-CU leadership also sings McSwain’s praises for her contributions.

“I am very excited that USDLA has acknowledged the excellent work of Dean McSwain and to the faculty for providing access to quality online programs for our students,” shared Dr. Makola M. Abdullah, provost and chief academic officer who oversees all academic and research programs at the institution. “This is an important step in realizing President (Edison) Jackson’s vision for B-CU.’’

Inside online learning
The online college has 149 students enrolled in six bachelor and three master degree programs.

One year ago, there were 54 online students. The most popular and longest established program is the Master of Science degree in Transformative Leadership program, which boasts 91 students.

According to McSwain, distance education at B-CU is defined as being able to earn a degree without having to come on campus. The university offers hybrid programs where students complete the majority of their learning online, but practicums or clinical work occurs on campus.

Blended courses combine the best of both worlds: 50 percent on campus and 50 percent online.

Additionally, the college offers “web enhanced” learning which is taught face to face but enhanced by Blackboard or similar technology utilities.

“Our programs are coded in such a way that it is very clear to students as to what they are enrolling in. We have advisors and success coaches who ensure this and it goes back to training,” said McSwain. “Every online college dean has the major responsibility to let everyone know exactly what programs we have, what they are, and what they require. That’s one of the standards from USDLA,” she added.

Benchmarks and standards
To obtain certification, B-CU had to meet 122 USDLA standards and was pre-certified in October 2014. For the next six months, McSwain led a team, including Franklin Patterson, head of Computer Information Technology (CIT) and the most integral members for certification approval: the faculty.

Together, they worked through a self-study process that culminated with a three-day site visit by USDLA. Included were interviews with the 21, online college faculty members who endured rigorous and intense training to obtain certification.

Online faculty members completed four learning modules including an orientation, computer literacy, Blackboard proficiency including a capstone project, and course design. Each must be passed with 90 percent accuracy. Their demonstrated expertise helped seal the certification deal.

“The quality standards team was impressed by the initiative and commitment exhibited by each staff member of the university,” said Marilyn Gardner, director of business development for USDLA.

Faculty engagement
As a content expert who is dually an educator, McSwain is well aware that the more engaged and trained faculty you have, the more engaged your online students will be. Her philosophy is personified by Kevin Finnie.

“It was hard for me at first because back in 1989, we didn’t have all this technology. We were walking up to the blackboard and now I’m using Blackboard online,” said Finnie. “They even have videos that tell you how to do the practicums, but my instructors and folks like Sherry Paramour, Warren Vickers and Veronica Evans are great. Plus the college has tutors too.”

Dr. Clarissa West-White is a B-CU assistant professor of English who teaches both online and face-to-face courses and sees the certification as a validation.

“Receiving USDLA certification validates the late hours and the work that goes into creating interactive and engaging online course content for students who often despise English,” said West-White. “It lets me know that I am on the right track and that as innovation continues to evolve, so must my courses.”

West-White’s affirmations are echoed by her B-CU colleague: “The BCU Online Certification program is valuable not only to online faculty but any faculty in the traditional teaching and learning classroom in Higher Education,” stated Dr. Kekeli Nuviadenu, associate professor of Speech Communications and Theatre Arts.

“The idea of aligning all aspects of course design, including activities and assignments, to course learning outcome and objectives is pertinent to having more meaningful and engaging teaching and learning environment and process. Bravo, Dr. McSwain.”

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