Lifelong learning is one of the mantras of career and technical education. Whether one's goal is to learn new skills or update old ones, secure a pay increase or add to one's marketable credentials, education can play an important role. That's as true in teaching as in any other field, which is why so many career tech teachers choose to pursue graduate degrees.
But like other aspects of the American education system, graduate education is under fire these days.
"Higher education is being scrutinized for efficiency and productivity like no time in its history," explains Jim Gregson, division director of the University of Idaho Division of Adult, Counselor and Technology Education.
This scrutiny puts increasing pressure on degree programs to prove their worth not just to potential students, but also as sources of revenue to the universities that house them. The result isn't always pretty, with some university career tech teaching departments being forced to downsize or close altogether--even as the country experiences a continued teacher shortage.
But in many cases, graduate programs in CTE are responding with innovative ideas that can cut university costs and boost enrollment while maintaining, or even improving, the academic experience for students.
If You Build It, Will They Come?
Not necessarily, say professors and administrators. An academically strong CTE program just isn't enough to guarantee success.
It's not that the interest in these programs doesn't exist. It's that "teachers cannot get to the university," says Betty Heath-Camp, a past ACTE board member who is a professor and program leader at Virginia Tech in the college of education's career and technical education department. To overcome this obstacle, many schools have traditionally relied on a network of regional centers to get closer to the need. Virginia Tech's goal has been to have no teacher in the state beyond a two-hour reach of its programs.
While Heath-Camp notes that most teachers are much closer than this, the policy is illustrative of the struggle universities face. "We don't have the faculty to go out to every corner of the state," explains Heath-Camp. And yet, a two-hour drive is four hours round trip. That's four hours more than anyone struggling to balance a full-time teaching position with a part-time master's program has got.
Until recently, there wasn't much that could be done. But distance learning--which encompasses both video-teleconferencing and Web-based classes--is beginning to revolutionize master's degree programs in career tech education.
If You Build This, They Will Come.
This past fall, Virginia Tech put into place a comprehensive program to allow students to complete their master's in CTE entirely through distance learning.
At the University of Idaho and elsewhere, distance learning is being used on a more limited basis. It allows professors to cut down on their own travel time, increase course availability for students outside of the main campus, and offer "more intensive, but not as frequent, face-to-face contact," says Gregson.
This fall, he will teach a curriculum course in which students are spread across three different campuses. He will rotate between the campuses, meeting with students at any given location one week out of three. Course readings, activities and interactive Web-based discussions will be available online.
Is distance learning cost effective for universities? The jury is still out on that one. Does it bump up enrollment? Absolutely.
While, distance learning can cut the cost of facility upkeep, the technology itself is expensive, as is developing the courses. Heath-Camp estimates that 40 hours of preparation go into every hour of instruction delivered through the distance learning courses.
However, the demand for these courses is overwhelming. Gregson emphasizes that while as many as 95 percent of the students in his master's degree programs are working full time in addition to going to school, it is this demographic that continues to account for almost all the growth in enrollment. …