Apr 1, 2015
Digital Degrees
Paul Arndorfer

As online education gains in popularity, more and more sports medicine professionals are logging on to learn. In this three-part article, both former and current students share their experiences.

The following article appears in the March 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.

Like most young professionals in the strength and conditioning field, I was excited to land my first full-time coaching position after graduating from college. It was 2001, and the job was as an assistant at Utah State University. The experience confirmed I had chosen the right profession, and I reveled in working so closely with athletes.

But I didn’t want to stay in that position forever. In the years following my first job, I was fortunate to work with a number of respected head strength and conditioning coaches and realized I wanted to reach their level someday. However, to do so, I knew I would need to obtain a master’s degree.

A hectic schedule of training athletes all day made it nearly impossible to continue my education in the traditional classroom setting, so I eventually looked into online programs. American Public University offered an online master’s degree in sports administration, and I decided to pursue this option in August 2008.

Why sports administration? The duties of a head strength and conditioning coach have evolved over the past 20 years. What was once a one-person job that revolved around putting athletes through lifting and running programs now often includes overseeing nutrition, sports psychology, and social media, as well as managing a department. To become a head strength coach or a director of sports performance, you need to be familiar with these topics, adept at coordinating a staff, and able to delegate responsibilities. I felt a degree in administration would prepare me for these challenges.

Another reason I chose this field was to benefit my career in the long-term by bolstering my administrative experience. In 10 to 15 years, I’d like to have the option to move from coaching into a full administrative role, and a master’s in sports administration would provide me the skills to do so.

As I dove into my coursework, I quickly discovered that online education offered many of the same benefits as classroom learning, while still allowing me to complete my schoolwork in my own time and at my own pace. My boss at the time permitted me to work on assignments if I had a lull during the day, and I completed the rest at night and on weekends.

Each of my courses had a syllabus, and I usually had to complete weekly textbook readings and occasional quizzes, tests, projects, and papers. My favorite project was one in which each student created a school and had to pretend to be its new athletic director. We chose our mascot, logo, and what sports we would offer, and we had to develop detailed budgets for each activity.

Staying motivated is the key to completing online assignments on time, but with the freedom the courses provide, it’s not always easy. I stayed on track by reminding myself that a master’s degree would make life better for my family.

The biggest difference in online classes versus the traditional classroom is the lack of face-to-face interaction with professors and other students. All contact with professors is done electronically. I found it was important to maintain an open dialogue with the instructors, and I’d regularly e-mail them updates on my progress with the material. Because the professors knew who I was and what kind of effort I was putting into the class, they were responsive and helpful when problems arose.

Not physically interacting with my classmates meant I had limited opportunities to share ideas with them or communicate about class content. However, I overcame this obstacle by picking the brains of the athletic administrators I was working with at the time. The vice president for facilities, for example, taught me a lot about the costs of building, renovating, and maintaining athletic facilities. My deputy athletic director was forthcoming about how to budget for different sports, and I talked frequently with my assistant athletic director for academics about the inner workings of the athletic department.

In 2010, I graduated with my master’s degree from APU, and I was hired a year later to be the Director of Sports Performance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. I had achieved my goal. Right away, my master’s degree helped me in my duties.

For instance, I head up UMKC’s Performance Team–a collaboration between Sports Performance, Sports Medicine, and the Student-Athlete Academic Services Office–that strives to create the best environment possible for our student-athletes. Lessons learned in my coursework are put to use when I organize the team, make agendas for our meetings, and ensure our projects are carried out successfully.

In addition, my classes taught me about setting up for events, working with a budget, scheduling athletic teams at a facility without overlap, writing proposals, and devising plans to do projects in different phases. As it turned out, one of my first tasks upon arriving at UMKC was writing a proposal to renovate our weightroom in three separate phases. We recently completed the final stage of that plan.

Colleagues who are considering online education often ask me, “Would employers think less of an online degree?” In my experience, employers seemed more concerned with whether I had a master’s degree than where or how it was obtained. Many of them use the presence or absence of an advanced degree to screen job applicants right away. By earning a master’s degree, an applicant has shown they possess the discipline to continue their education and have gained valuable knowledge.

My experience with online education was so rewarding that I’m pursuing a second online master’s degree. To further broaden my horizons and keep up with the constantly evolving duties of a performance coach, I have recently started taking classes toward a master’s in psychology with an emphasis on positive coaching through the University of Missouri’s online program.

Back to Basics

By Jessica Hoenich

Jessica Hoenich, MS, LAT, PES, CES, is an Athletic Trainer for CPRS Physical Therapy and is contracted to Cocalico School District in Denver, Pa. She received her master’s degree in rehabilitative sciences from California University of Pennsylvania in 2010 and can be reached at: [email protected].

Due to a complicated undergraduate experience that was filled with potholes, detours, and the occasional U-turn, my journey to obtaining an online master’s degree wasn’t traditional. In college, I attended three schools and changed majors as many times in five years. These shifts, coupled with the stresses of being a college field hockey player for two different programs, eventually culminated in a bachelor’s degree in sociology, a coaching minor, and 13 credits in athletic training.

Upon graduating, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in athletic training, but I was burned out from school. Returning to the classroom to get my master’s was the last thing on my mind.

Instead, I passed my certified athletic trainer exam and started looking for a job. As luck would have it, a position as a high school athletic trainer close to my hometown opened up, and I was hired. The job offered great benefits, including continuing education reimbursement. As a young athletic trainer, I was eager to complete as many CEUs as possible to boost not only my credibility, but my resume as well.

Pursuing these CEUs was how I got my start in online education. With the long and hectic days of an athletic trainer, I wanted to learn from the comforts of my own home, so an online program was perfect. I started with a three-month course to earn a Performance Enhancement Specialist certification through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), and my confidence in online education grew from there.

My desire to remain competitive in the job market nudged me to my next foray into distance learning–attaining my master’s degree. Because I bounced from school to school as an undergrad and found my passion late in my educational experience, I missed the structured curriculum most athletic training students get. Seeking a master’s degree online was the best way to get the traditional course background most athletic trainers received while continuing to work in the field.

After researching my options, I decided to pursue an accelerated online master’s degree in rehabilitative sciences from California University of Pennsylvania. I chose Cal U because it offered detailed training in rehabilitation of injuries and allowed me to condense two years of courses into one.

In addition, NASM partners with Cal U, so on top of my master’s degree, I was able to add a Corrective Exercise Technician certification, another tool in my box. Things started clicking into place.

Cal U’s online master’s program was run very similar to a traditional classroom. Instructors presented a syllabus at the beginning of each course and had deadlines for all of the assignments.

In all of my classes, guided group discussion was essential. The professor got the ball rolling by posing a question or scenario to the class. We logged on and posted our responses on the discussion board, and the conversation took off from there. I did most of my assignments in the mornings before my day got really busy. When I got home from work, I checked in on the daily activity and posted again if needed.

Being able to hone my computer skills was an added bonus of my online education. When I started, computers intimidated me. However, the assignments required navigating various programs. Logging in to the university site, finding my way through admissions, class discussions, using Microsoft Excel and Word, and creating PowerPoints became second nature. I quickly mastered the technological ins and outs and finished my degree with a newfound confidence in my computer skills.

The only aspect of online education that was difficult was not physically seeing my classmates. A friend who recently completed her degree online suggested that I download photos of my classmates and tape them around my computer. This helped me visualize who I was addressing in discussions and made my online experience a little more personalized.

Overall, obtaining my master’s degree online allowed me to balance my full-time job duties with broadening my base of athletic training knowledge. Since completing my degree, I’ve had the pleasure of working in a variety of settings. Most of my professional experience has been in high school athletics, but I’ve also spent time in physical therapy clinics, semi-professional sports, and with various U.S. National teams.

For instance, through peer referral, I gained access to the Olympic volunteer program. Following a two-week rotation in Lake Placid, I was signed to the medical staff and asked to accompany the U.S. National Bobsled and Skeleton Team to Germany for the World Cup Championships. Opportunities with the team continued for several years, allowing me to travel all over Europe. In addition, I recently spent time as the Medical Manager for National Teams for USA Men’s and Women’s Field Hockey. The medical professionals I have met along the way have been unique and shared a wide variety of knowledge with me.

My educational journey has not been traditional. However, if it were not for online education, I may have never achieved my master’s degree or reached the same heights in my career. Now, I am hooked to online education. Anything I want to learn is at my fingertips, and my journey continues.

Advancing Online

By Bertha De La Garza

Bertha “Bert” De La Garza, MS, LAT, ATC, is Associate Athletic Trainer at Hardin-Simmons University and serves as a preceptor and adjunct instructor in the school’s Athletic Training Education Program. She is currently pursuing an online doctorate of health sciences with an emphasis on leadership from A.T. Still University. She can be reached at: [email protected].

Just four years ago, I had no intention of ever pursuing an online doctorate degree. I was fortunate to earn my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in my mid-20s and had established a solid career in high school and college athletics. But as I approached 40, my goals evolved. Instead of working directly with athletes, I wanted to educate and empower the next generation of athletic trainers by bridging the long-standing gap between the classroom and the clinic.

At the time, I felt that PhDs, EdDs, and doctorates did not mesh with my personal or professional aspirations, but I knew these advanced degrees are often required to teach in a university setting. While examining my options, I discovered the online doctorate of health sciences (DHSc) degree at A.T. Still University. Most PhD programs focus on preparing students to become scientists and researchers, but the DHSc is geared toward developing health professionals into advanced clinical practitioners, leaders, and educators. This was right up my alley.

The DHSc plan offered two emphases: global health and leadership. I thought leadership best aligned with my intended goal of teaching in an athletic training education program, so I registered and started my online doctoral education in August 2011.

The program is formatted in a multi-year plan, and I am scheduled to graduate in June 2015. Unlike self-paced degrees in which the student takes one or two classes when convenient, I thought it was good to have an end point in mind so I know how far I am from the finish line.

A.T. Still’s distance-learning program uses the educational website Blackboard. I “attend” class by logging in and responding to weekly discussion questions. The virtual classroom may not be conducted in real time, but participation is mandatory. Our input and exchanges are graded whether they are posted at 9 a.m. or midnight.

Before graduating, the DHSc degree also requires that I complete an Applied Research Project (ARP). The ARP is multifaceted and includes both a written manuscript submission and a virtual webcam presentation.

My ARP is titled, “The Significance of Health Literacy for Certified Athletic Trainers in College and Secondary School Settings.” This was not a typical athletic training topic and had not been addressed in athletic training literature until January 2014. I was glad to know that other researchers had taken interest in this topic, but I was disappointed that my manuscript wasn’t the first one published regarding health literacy in athletic training.

The major benefit of obtaining an online degree is flexibility. Like most athletic trainers, I work long and varied hours, so I appreciate that I am able to respond to discussion board questions or complete assignments on my own time. Although I have due dates to make, I can work and participate in class at my convenience.

The freedom that comes with an online education is great, but it does have a few stumbling blocks. One that I sometimes struggle with is self-discipline. It’s easy to fall behind on class work at one point or another, in part due to the lack of a designated class time.

Technological difficulties can also crop up. I have twice run into problems while attempting to submit assignments. There is no quick fix when these glitches occur except to report the problem to Blackboard’s tech services and turn in a work order online. In both instances, my professors understood that Blackboard was sometimes unreliable and allowed me to re-submit my work.

It was also important to get used to the physical distance between myself and my professors and classmates. Although there can be hesitation in asking for help when not face-to-face, there doesn’t need to be. My professors have e-mailed often and even called to make certain I was able to complete a difficult assignment.

A.T. Still offers a unique opportunity that helps ease the challenge of not having face-to-face interactions with classmates. The Winter Institute (WI) session is a four-day annual event held near the campus in Arizona. Students are required to attend one WI during their time in the program, and I went in February 2012.

At the WI, each student meets with their cohort and other DHSc students and presents a topic with a group, which we selected prior to attending the session. My group consisted of two other students in my program with whom I had grown close. We did a presentation on MRSA–with one of my fellow presenters dressed in a bacteria costume–and received a standing ovation for our creativity and research. It was great to actually meet my cohort at the WI. Although we were acquainted online, the face-to-face interaction helped complete my school experience.

Despite its occasional challenges, I am happy with my decision to pursue an online doctorate. Through this experience, I have been exposed to the ideas, knowledge, and perceptions of health care professionals from diverse specialties, such as nurses, dentists, physician assistants, public health officials, occupational therapists, and health administrators. In addition, my curriculum has been expansive and covered health care delivery systems, evidence-based practice, law and ethics, health policy development and analysis, health care outcomes, risk management for health professionals, and trends and issues in leadership.

I would encourage athletic trainers looking to improve their educational credentials to consider an online degree. However, it’s important to do diligent research beforehand and find a program that works for you. Do you want to focus on one particular subject and become an expert in it? Or do you want to develop a more diverse knowledge base?

It’s also crucial to think about the time you’ll need to invest. Typically, each three-credit class requires 12 to 15 hours of work per week.

The pursuit of my online doctorate has afforded me the best opportunity to combine working in the clinical setting with advancing in the educational arena. The experience and knowledge I gained from my classes have enhanced my clinical practice, and I hope taking this step to attain a terminal degree will help me achieve my goal of working in academia full time in the future.

Paul Arndorfer, MS, CSCS, is Director of Sports Performance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He has a master's degree in sports administration from American Public University and is pursuing a master's in psychology through the University of Missouri's online program. He can be reached at: [email protected].

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