Is that an Elephant in the Living Room?
Kenneth W. Mentor
University of North Carolina Wilmington
The popularity of criminal justice as a major, combined with the potential to reach justice professionals with distance technology, has resulted in the creation of many online degree programs. However, scholarly organizations in criminal justice barely acknowledge online learning. ACJS Certification Standards do not allow certification for most non-traditional programs. The failure to respond to rapid changes may be preventing our discipline from achieving goals related to criminal justice education.
The popularity of criminal justice education, combined with the potential for reaching many justice professional with distance technology, makes criminal justice an attractive candidate for online course and degree delivery. In fact, the discipline of criminal justice has been seen as fertile ground for new students and growth in certain segments of the market for criminal justice education has been very impressive.
Allen and Seaman (2008) report that over 3.9 million higher education students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2007 term, a 12.9% increase over the previous year. In contrast, there was just a 1.2% growth of the overall higher education student population. Over 20% of all U.S. higher education students were taking at least one online course in the fall of 2007, accounting for nearly 22% of total enrollment (Allen and Seaman, 2008). While the rate of growth varies from year-to-year, there is no indication that growth rates are leveling. Economic conditions, coupled with a growing emphasis on sustainability, are likely to accelerate the expansion of online learning, even if traditional enrollments decline.
While non-profit institutions are discovering this market, they are relatively late to the game. For-profit institutions currently comprise a significant percentage of the online learning market and are expected to continue to capture a large share of the market. The growth of some of these proprietary institutions has been remarkable. For example, Kaplan University has grown from 34 online students in 2001 to more than 48,000 online and on-ground students in 2008 (Kaplan, 2009). Kaplan first began offering criminal justice degrees in 2003. Since then, enrollment in the School of Criminal Justice has grown to over 7,000 students and more than 14 criminal justice degree or certificate programs (DiMarino, 2008).
Although we will see an increased emphasis on traditional students as the learning benefits of online learning are more widely acknowledged, those currently interested in online education are attracted by convenience, availability, and scheduling flexibility. This is especially true for criminal justice professionals closely connected to the communities in which they work. Online learning allows these professionals to return to college, or complete non-degree training experiences, without leaving their jobs and communities.
Given this rapid growth, accompanied by many online options in our discipline, it would seem logical to find criminal justice and criminology educators at the forefront of the distance learning movement. However, scholarly organizations in criminal justice and criminology barely acknowledge the rapid advancement of online learning. The ACJS Certification Standards for Academic Programs focus on campus-based programs and do not appear to acknowledge the possibility of certification for non-traditional programs that are not connected to, and administered by, faculty teaching in a traditional campus-based program (ACJS, 2005). While the “Teaching Tips” column in The Criminologist has been an exception, with several articles of interest to online educators, the ASC has been similarly silent on the issue of online education.
Rapid change in online learning has increased the importance of effective accreditation review, in many cases leading committed faculty to treat accreditation as an important opportunity rather than a necessary evil. Educators are becoming increasingly familiar with the expectations of regional accrediting bodies, acknowledging that accreditation standards represent important measures that can inform our efforts to focus on the development of effective learning outcomes.
As we begin to rely more heavily on distance learning models we can expect an increased emphasis on accreditation. Entirely new institutions are being formed to provide educational opportunities. Rather than force a hierarchy that places “traditional” models in a superior position, it is important to acknowledge the potential benefits of these rapid changes. Many discussions of online education rely on broad generalizations about quality, student motivations, and the entrepreneurial focus now being seen in higher education. We also see inaccurate assumptions regarding the quality of traditional models. Many changes will be necessary as we continue our efforts to build high quality learning environments.
Dedicated educators can certainly work to assure quality online educational experiences without the support of discipline-specific scholarly organizations. We can start by questioning the effectiveness of online learning environments. Quality varies widely, creating a void that could be filled with discipline specific guidelines. Educators may also want to examine the process through which courses and programs are created. For example, are criminal justice faculty involved with developing online courses, or has the process been turned over to course developers with very little discipline-specific knowledge?
Another issue is whether faculty members with terminal degrees are teaching courses and exercising responsibility for overall program quality. We also see an emphasis on very different instructor qualifications as proprietary institutions give hiring preference to instructors with “real world” experience. Arguably, the courses we teach, and students we serve, are changing as a result of events that many in our disciplines have yet to acknowledge.
We are also experiencing a variety of new learning models, including accelerated options, certificates, and other innovations. New subsections of our discipline are being created as online criminal justice degree programs, presently dominated by proprietary institutions, respond quickly to market demands. Entrepreneurial institutions have responded to these demands by developing courses, degrees, concentrations, and certificates in areas such as forensics, cyber-crime, homeland security, business continuity, and emergency management. In short, the teaching of criminology and criminal justice are changing as a result of marketing decisions.
How can online learning be better? We are just beginning to explore this terrain. While many changes will be needed, often relying on new learning tools, there is no doubt that learning is being permanently transformed. If we are truly experiencing a paradigm shift, this shift is constrained by our reluctance to acknowledge this change. The higher education paradigm, honed and perfected over time, has served us well. Unfortunately, this model may now be preventing us from moving toward higher quality learning environments.
The world of higher education is clearly changing. New technology has created many new learning opportunities and we are just beginning to experience the benefits. This is occurring during a time in which we are also seeing new demands from students. While we can question the absence of the scholarly organization to which many of us belong, these changes have lead to many new opportunities for educators.
DiMarino, F. (2008). Viewpoint interview with Frank DiMarino, The Washington Post. Available at: http://discuss.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/zforum/05/kaplan_viewpoint2.htm
Kaplan (2009). Kaplan Higher Education Fact Sheet. Kaplan University. Available at: http://talent.kaplan.edu/Assets/PDF/kaplanhistory.pdf