This spring some students wrapped up their first year of work toward a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington without ever really setting foot on campus.
These 49 Huskies from eight states are part of the inaugural group of students in the UW’s first online bachelor’s degree completion program. Announced in spring 2013, the Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood and Family Studies degree is meant to prepare people for working in child care centers, preschools and other early education services. (The university has since announced a second online bachelor’s completion degree, in Integrated Social Sciences.)
University administrators hope the online bachelor’s degree completion programs will provide greater access to higher education to students who need a flexible approach to pursuing their education.
Quick facts about the first cohort of students in UW’s Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood and Family Studies program:
- 49 students: 48 women, 1 man
- living in 8 states: Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Colorado, California, Oregon, Hawaii and Washington
- ages 20-60
“With this program we have reconciled a long-standing issue of a split of knowledge and practice in the field of early childhood teacher preparation. We hope the degree helps address the projected growth in jobs in early education,” said Gail Joseph, director of the online program and an associate professor of educational psychology in the UW College of Education.
“Although I have never met one of them in person, I can honestly say that I am getting to know these online students so much better than I thought I would,” Joseph added.
The first cohort of students – 48 women and one man – hail from all over the country: Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Colorado, California, Oregon, Hawaii and Washington.
Linked virtually to campus, one may wonder about the lives of these students. Why did they decide to pursue the degree, what do they think about learning online, and how do they fit the program around their other responsibilities?
Jeni Zaffram, 35, has been taking college classes in early education since 2005 and runs a licensed child care business from her home in Sultan, Wash. She began Kiddie Depot 13 years ago so she could be at home to raise her children – she has a 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. “I felt like I could make a difference, and I always knew I would work with children,” she said.
Her 12-hour days start early so she can work on classwork before parents start dropping off their kids – Zaffram has two enrolled full-time and the rest part-time. She wedges in more homework in the evenings and weekends.
“I see it, learn it, and do it,” Zaffram said of how she integrates what she’s learning from the UW online program with her job. “I am able to use what I am learning immediately.”
The classes Zaffram takes as part of UW’s early education degree are taught online by UW faculty and other early education experts. Students set their own pace by completing assignments on their own schedules, and choosing either full-time or part-time enrollment.
All the coursework is online, delivered through materials such as instructor videos, readings, narrated PowerPoint presentations and resource videos. They submit assignments – papers, presentations, videos – online, and students participate in online discussion forums as part of their grade.
In one type of assignment, students film themselves demonstrating what they’ve learned, such as following a child’s lead, positive reinforcement of behavior and teaching new words. They use the program “Coaching Companion” to upload and discuss the videos online with their teacher and other students.
Zaffram said the videos allow her to “see the big picture and find out what I miss during the moment.”
Another student, Anita McHarg, 60, had a similar view. “The videotaping we do with specific goals to cover has been a real eye-opener for interacting with children and seeing what I miss and how I sound,” said McHarg, who is the lead teacher in the toddler room at the Shyne School in Woodinville, Wash.
“Each class offers new information that I am able to incorporate into what I already know and do,” McHarg added. “Quite a lot of what we are learning I do already, it just needs some tweaking like rearranging an area of the class, adding in a small-group activity each day and reading stories with a focus on novel words.”
During breaks at work and on weekends, McHarg works on the early education degree. “It can feel overwhelming at times, but I love learning and this is my passion. I feel focused and energized by it – most of the time,” she said.
Miho Wright, director of St. Mike’s Tikes Early Learning Center in Olympia, Wash., was excited to enroll in the UW program because it lets her finish her degree online while still working. “Online courses may sound as if we are just learning through the computer screen,” she said. “But the program requires many service-learning hours working directly with children, which I think is crucial for our success as students.”
Her child care center is currently in the rating process through Washington State Early Achievers. Since the UW program is designed to align with state quality standards for early education, “I can share new information and knowledge I gain through this program with the staff members in my center,” Wright said.
All three students are using the degree to improve their careers. Zaffram, for instance, wants to improve her work-life balance by not having a daycare center in her home. “I feel that a degree will help get me a position that I will be proud of that includes working with children. Without a degree, finding a position of teaching is difficult to come by,” she said.
McHarg hopes to have new opportunities, such as working with adults or in public school and pursuing roles in school administration. And Wright hopes the degree will improve her ability to support children and their families.
“Working with young children and families is one of the most important fields in society,” Wright said. “Life experiences during the early years make such a great impact not only on the person, but also on society.”