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Emergency Management Degrees: Should You Get Your Education Online?

It’s no longer a question about whether degrees are an important part of emergency management. But when considering where and how to get a degree, there’s a big question about the best platform.

Emergency management is officially a profession — defined as having a core body of knowledge, an ethical framework, standards and university programs offering education and degrees. It is no longer a question about whether degrees are an important part of this field. Employers are requiring a college degree to start, and for those already in the field, it is getting harder to advance without a master’s degree.

When considering where and how to get that degree, the question of delivery platforms becomes sticky. In other words, what about online degree? Is an emergency management degree obtained over the Internet worth as much as the same one from a brick-and-mortar school?

What It Is

This is more than a rhetorical question for me. Since my first retirement in 2011, I have been teaching emergency management online. After a career of developing and delivering training programs as a practicing Certified Emergency Manager and Certified Business Continuity Professional, transferring those comfortable and familiar face-to-face interactions for the relative anonymity of a monitor and keyboard can be disconcerting.

Not understanding the history and different facets of online education didn’t help. Distance learning has been around for a long time. An Englishman, Sir Isaac Pitman, was teaching shorthand by correspondence in 1840. Students were instructed to copy short passages of the Bible and return them for grading via the new Penny Post system. How many of you remember the matchbook covers offering programs to finish high school or learn a new skill? I still remember when my mom’s high school diploma came in the mail and how proud she was.

When correspondence education started, it was primarily by mail, but added slides, motion pictures, radio and TV — and the Internet — along the way. There is even a journal devoted to The Internet and Higher Education.

Still, there are stigmas attached to distance learning. Some faculty members find more value in face-to-face lectures, and the lack of physical social interaction isn’t best for everyone. Of course, it also means adapting to and using new technologies.

Emergency management isn’t the only academic discipline where the value of distance education and learning programs is questionable. There are parts of some disciplines that don’t lend themselves to this kind of course delivery — physics or biology lab work, for example.

How It Works

For everything else, however, there can be significant advantages to learning in cyberspace instead of a traditional classroom. For emergency management, specifically, the advantages of an online degree — for the student as well as the teacher — can outweigh the disadvantages. The advantages include:

Time: Emergency management students are looking for flexibility. It is hard to work full time, go to school and have a personal life. Distance learning allows students to fit their education into their own time frame.

Location: Students are from all over the world. Likewise, professors can be anywhere. I’ve set up courses, answered questions and graded papers in dozens of places from Pismo Beach, Calif., to Bar Harbor, Maine.

Underserved populations: Online courses are still the first choice for the military and students overseas (like the Foreign Service). Remote locations or transportation problems are easier to overcome.

Knowledge: Because they come from everywhere, there is an amazing wealth of knowledge among students in online emergency management courses, and the interactive discussions can be amazing. Students are drawn into the material because it is supported by other students and not just the professor. Everybody participates and everybody learns. On the other hand, there is order to the discussions. Students can’t talk all at once, or all the time, or not at all. The traditional student who sits in the corner and doesn’t talk and the student who sits in the front row with all the answers don’t exist in a cyberenvironment.

Professionals: The Internet makes it easier for students to connect with emergency management luminaries like William Waugh, Dennis Mileti, George Haddow, Wayne Blanchard and Claire Rubin, among others. How great is that?

Writing: Online courses require a lot of writing, which translates to using good grammar, punctuation and formatting. The most basic tenant of a good emergency manager is communication — not just speaking, but writing reports, papers, memos, grants and proposals. All that writing practice makes it easier.

One of the biggest advantages of an online degree program is that the teacher does not automatically command a presence, as he or she would in a traditional classroom. No pontificating in front of the classroom, using the lectern as a comfortable divider. Good online teachers learn to be facilitators and moderators, encouraging participation, allowing students to be equal participants in the learning process. For some professors, this is not an easy task and they, too, have a learning curve.

Adding In Experience

Even considering the advantages to an online degree, one of the criticisms about emergency management degrees is experience. A good emergency manager comes from the triad of education, training and experience. How does a professor add experience to an online course?

Many degree programs offer, or require, internships or externships — matching students with a professional emergency manager for an entire semester or a year. Several years ago, Lindsey Holman, then a student in the Arkansas Tech Emergency Management program, spent a summer working with me at the University of California, Davis. Today she is a senior emergency management specialist for Witt/O’Brien’s.

Dorothy Miller, the emergency management coordinator for Round Rock, Texas, teaches a Field Exercise Project Course for the Crisis and Disaster Management program at the University of Central Missouri. Students learn the fundamental steps involved in designing, conducting and evaluating various types of exercises using Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program principles. She builds in practical experience by requiring students to design a discussion-based exercise for a local agency or organization of their choice.

As part of my Risk and Crisis Communication course at California State University, Long Beach, students are required to complete a project for a real-life emergency manager. Student teams are assigned as “consultants” to an emergency manager “customer.” These are a few of the projects they’ve completed:

  • Developing an elected official’s guide for David Maack, the emergency management coordinator for Racine County, Wis.
  • Analyzed current practices in engaging students in the campus emergency notification system for Nick Crossley, an emergency manager at the University of California, Davis.
  • Writing an Emergency Communication Guide template for Jeff Robinson at the Office of Disaster Management, Area G of Los Angeles County.
  • Researching the capabilities and functions for disaster response for Patrice Cloutier at CrisisCommons.
  • Reviewing social media in communication plans for Shannan Saunders at the Ministry of the Attorney General in Ontario.
Students in most degree programs are required to do a capstone project or thesis, which generally requires them to work with a community partner. Students are writing grant proposals, analyzing and recommending policies, and writing plans for specific community needs (including social media, landslides, vulnerable populations, climate change or cloud-based document preservation).

It turns out not to be so difficult, perhaps easier than in a brick-and-mortar course, it just requires some creativity and curiosity on the part of the instructor.

Where to Learn

One of the major issues in emergency management education today is the lack of consistency in program delivery, because it is such a new field (it’s almost unheard of to go from an occupation to an academic discipline in 20 years). FEMA has been sponsoring a series of focus groups to develop academic standards and an accreditation process, but it might be several years before that can be implemented.

Meanwhile, students have to do some research to decide where to get an emergency management degree. A good place to start is the FEMA Higher Ed College List. It also helps to look at the faculty. The nature of emergency management requires as much practical knowledge as academic knowledge. Programs should include practitioners (or former practitioners) as adjunct faculty in all related emergency management fields. Subject-matter experts in communication or public health can give students a field-level view that matches well with the academic knowledge they are acquiring.

Why Consider It?

Education delivery platforms are changing, like everything else. The number of online degree programs and the number of students enrolled in online degree programs are increasing.

The International Association of Emergency Managers' (IAEM) Student Region does a membership survey that’s presented at the annual FEMA Higher Ed Symposium. The number of students in online degree programs has increased from 50 percent in 2009 to 75 percent in 2014. At the same time, the number of students in classroom-based degree programs has decreased from 35 percent in 2009 to 10 percent in 2014.

One of the keynote speakers at the recent FEMA Higher Ed Symposium, Bruce Lockwood, president of IAEM-USA, reiterated that education is different than training. In simple terms, it’s the difference between “knowing how” and “knowing why.” Today’s emergency managers need critical thinking and problem-solving skills, knowledge and understanding of finance, law and public policy, as well as project management and training delivery skills.

Today’s emergency manager needs a good academic education, as well as training and experience. Don’t hesitate because a traditional classroom experience isn’t possible; find an online degree program that fits your needs. There are lots of options out there!

This story was originally published by Emergency Management.

Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.