Sagal Ahmed, Contributing Writer
After graduating from VCU’s School of Business, Bradley Brookens moved to Tennessee and was unable to continue working toward his master’s degree from the university in person. Brookens is now enrolled in one of the best online programs in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report, and he says that in some ways it’s a better experience.
“One of the most distinctive things about online programs is that you actually see your classmates, since you are seeing things through a screen and you can really see them and the changes they are going through,” Brookens said, “compared to a traditionally taught class, where you are sitting side by side facing forward at the professor.”
Every year, U.S News & World Report ranks online college bachelor and master’s programs based on engagement, service and technologies, faculty credentials and training. High-ranking academic officials give their opinions by survey. Qualifications for master’s programs are the same but also consider student excellence, while bachelor programs do not.
Of the 50 best online programs in the U.S, VCU’s School of Education master’s program tied at No. 8. VCU’s School of Business MBA program was ranked at No. 35, and VCU’s School of Nursing’s master’s program tied at No. 45.
The School of Nursing master’s program and the School of Business MBA program invite their students to visit the campus over the summer before the online program begins, but this isn’t the only time students get to interact in person.
Students that are in the MBA program have the same access to VCU facilities and events that on-campus students do. The MBA program manager, Robert Clarkson, said students have plenty of opportunities to “network and form with your fellow students” aside from virtual sessions and residencies.
“Because of the cohort feature, which is where students start and finish the program together as well as take classes with each other,” Clarkson said, “students get to know each other very well and coordinate with each other to attend some of these on-campus events and facilities such as professional development events.”
This is aimed to help some students in the 2020 cohort, of which 66% are from the Richmond area but cannot make it to class on a regular basis because of work, taking care of family members or having a family of their own.
Additionally, students are required to attend three weekend residencies during their two-year program. Clarkson says the weekend residencies can be difficult to schedule because students have to be available on three Fridays.
Matthew Bare, assistant director at the VCU School of Medicine and a student in the MBA program, says there are “co-mingles” throughout the semester where students can interact with professors and each other.
“Since starting this past fall 2019, I’ve found that my professors, classmates and program management are always accessible and ready to assist,” Bare said. “This has helped to make this experience extremely rewarding.”
The School of Nursing master’s program, which went online in 2016, is more geared for specific concentrations such as nursing administration and leadership. The students complete most of their practical experience in hospitals during their undergraduate semesters.
VCU School of Nursing’s Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Debra Barksdale said most of the program allows professors to design all of the learning activities to be done online. Discussion boards and group projects are also used. Part of the program is not done online, in which students gain hands-on experience with other nurse administrators.
Barksdale said there are potential changes pending approval from the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia.
“We want to shorten or decrease the number of credits to make the program more efficient and increase learning and have students reach the student learning outcomes we have set up,” Barksdale said. “We also have a new curriculum that would be four semesters instead of the five we have now.”
Similarly to the MBA program, students interact together and with professors and other staff members when they come to campus before the program begins and during the following summer.
This is the second time the School of Education has made the list, the second time the School of Nursing program has been ranked in general and the first ranking for the School of Business MBA program, which was recently developed.
The School of Education tied for No. 8 with Creighton University, San Diego State University, Texas A&M University College Station, University at Albany SUNY, University of Houston and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
The School of Nursing tied for No. 45 with Duquesne University, Eastern Kentucky University, Northwestern State University of Louisiana, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and University of Louisiana Lafayette.