Breaking Down the Barriers to Effective Learning

Today's "distance education" can be achieved from virtually anywhere and any time in the world in multiple formats.

Online education has witnessed a staggering growth in providers of OHS and IH education, which can make the selection of a program confusing. Is getting a degree in IH or OHS a good investment of your time and money? How do you select an online program most suited to your personal and career aspirations? What are the primary differences in programs? What questions should you ask as you explore where to invest your limited time and money?

Online or distance education has been an accepted modality of education for almost two decades. At one point, Richland, Wash. could boast the highest concentration of master’s degrees in industrial hygiene (MSPH in IH) in the United Stats, as a consequence of DOE funding a revolutionary distance education program provided by the Tulane University School of Public Health in 1994. The initial distance learning program was specifically developed to increase the number of master's level industrial hygienists to carry out the cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Site in Richland.

The first formats included videoconferencing, "dial-up" modems, and groups of students established as "cohorts" at the Hanford site. This technology required all students to meet at the same time and at the same to access the "live video lectures." Today's "distance education" can be achieved from virtually anywhere and any time in the world in multiple formats.

Types of Modern Distant Learning Programs
Distance learning programs come in essentially "three flavors": synchronous, asynchronous, and blended (hybrid) formats. In the synchronous format, students and faculty meet at the same time in the virtual classroom, and the opportunity exits for live visual feed and "real time" discussions, lectures, and exchanges of information. In this format, the class is usually automatically recorded and posted for all participants and those absent from class to access at a later time. The asynchronous format resembles more a self-study model in which information is exchanged outside the constraints of time. Interactions promoting learning are supported by email, pre-recorded lectures, discussion boards, blogs, etc. Because they are not done in real time, there is less opportunity for spontaneous exchanges of information.

The synchronous format uses these same tools as supplements rather than the foundation for learning. In the blended format, face-to-face interactions are combined with computer-based activities. Because blended learning is an evolving technology, its definition and composition are still evolving, as well. Face-to-face need not necessarily mean being in the same room. In this way, the synchronous format where webcams are enabled may be considered a "blended learning" and may utilize all the tools described for synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Return on Investment
Is there value in acquiring a degree in a safety or industrial hygiene discipline? Reports suggest demand will exceed supply for qualified individuals in these areas, with recent estimated growth between 10 percent and 20 percent from 2002 to 2012 (Janicak, 2010). A NIOSH study indicated more than 25,000 occupational safety and health professionals will be hired within the next five years (NIOSH, 2011).

More companies are hiring safety professionals who have experience and degrees in OHS- and IH-related disciplines, making universities feeders to these industries (Nakayama, 2012). The financial value of education is going to be a summation of several factors, including degree and level, geographic location, and job type. However, it is estimated that individuals having a bachelor's, master's, doctoral, or professional degree over their lifetime will earn $2.27 million, $2.67 million, $3.25 million, and $3.65 million respectively (Carnevale, 2011). This report further concludes the degree level is the most significant factor within individual occupations with respect to earnings.

What Do I Do Now?
So you have made the decision to get a degree in occupational safety and/or industrial hygiene. Online degrees have proven themselves (depending on the provider) to be just as valued as a traditional brick-and-mortar education, and your personal circumstances or preferences necessitate a distance (online) education. As with all academic degrees, the reputation of the university plays an important role in the value of online degrees. The next steps include identification of a provider, your own learning style, and degree specialty. Finding providers of online education is perhaps the easiest step in the process; finding the right provider can be more problematic. A simple search will return a plethora of institutions supplying this service. But how do you differentiate the right one for you? One of the most important elements is to determine the legitimacy of the program you are considering. Is the program accredited?

Accreditation recognizes that an institution maintains standards and meets acceptable levels of quality. There are two basic types of accreditation recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for higher education: institutional and programmatic. Six regional accreditation bodies set the standards for institutions and serve as the gold standard for colleges and universities. Specialized or programmatic accreditation applies disciplinary and professional standards to schools and programs within an institution. Colleges and universities may have multiple accreditations. As an example, Tulane University is regionally accredited by SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools). Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine is accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health. In addition, the industrial hygiene master’s program is accredited by ABET. Accreditation is not only a statement about institutions legitimacy, but also a factor in qualifying for financial aid in many circumstances.

Once you have determined your course of study and established the program's legitimacy, the next step is to contact the program to obtain information on the curriculum and online requirements. It is useful to get connected with current or previous students from the program. The value of input from current or former students cannot be overstated. They give you inside information and inform you on how the degree has affected them professionally.

An OHS or IH program should be relevant to the workplace (Nakayama, 2012). When talking with former or current students, determine specific ways the knowledge is applied in their jobs and how the program has helped to advance their careers.

Comparing Educational Venues
Figure 1. Online versus on-campus toxicology exam data. (Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine graphic) When traditional brick-and-mortar and synchronous online modes of learning outcomes were compared in a graduate-level toxicology course as part of the Tulane OSM curriculum, little difference was observed in mastery of the material (Figure 1; White, 2009). For classes that are primarily fact based, such as science and math courses, the distance learning format appears to be equivalent whether taught online or in a traditional venue. However, when online modes are compared for satisfaction (i.e., asynchronous versus synchronous [blended]) almost 75 percent of the learners indicated a preference for synchronous. So while it appears that all of these venues can be effective in delivering instruction, the synchronous format is preferred over asynchronous (Skylar, 2009).

Degree, program, and certification completion rates are affected by many parameters and, while there are exceptions, generally speaking there is a lower rate of completion for asynchronous self-study courses than for synchronous courses. This appears to be attributable to the interactions online with professors and other learners in a class and is as important to completion and success as the content (Garrison & Archer, 2007; Kehrwald, 2008). In assessing an online program, a student is encouraged to ask about the completion rate.

Health, Safety, and Industrial Hygiene Learning
The synchronous learning environment for today's students in health, safety, and industrial hygiene must meet the requirement to develop:

  • Understanding: theories, models, concepts, facts, methodological approaches
  • Application: bring the subject matter out of the theoretical and hypothetical into the professional and personal world
  • Professional judgment: through class activities, students are able to further develop the analytical ability, communication, and teamwork that the newly acquired insight provides to their work

The acquisition of functional knowledge may include lectures and activities that encourage students to participate actively in learning and teaching. These types of activities include scenario-based models in which a student identifies with a specific setting (e.g., industries, business sectors, and situations relevant to the class participants). The online environment can be sensorially richer then the classroom.

While online, a student can simultaneously interact with other participants (by texting) while listening to a lecture, watching a video, and/or manipulating a model or other virtual environment (examples include ChemSpider, Second Life). This is known as multimodal learning and has been shown to enhance learning rate, satisfaction, and student engagement.

In the virtual classroom, students interact easily and can relate to each other and learn from each other's perspectives for the development of a more robust understanding leading to an enhanced ability to apply the concepts. This is in contrast to a traditional or asynchronous setting, where interactions with other students are more limited. The virtual interactive environment helps students avoid locking into a rigid application of a concept, enabling them to generalize to other situations.

Real-life or problem-based learning scenarios are effective in the virtual classroom to enhance development of professional judgment and its application. The relative anonymity of the virtual classroom facilitates a greater openness in which all participants are more likely to share real-life experiences and observations. In these ways, the students become active participants in their own, as well as aiding others' learning.

In evaluating a program, determine whether there is an opportunity to do group projects with professionals from diverse backgrounds, experience levels, and or industries. Are real-world problems tackled using the knowledge gained from the course material? The goal is to develop problems that are similar to those encountered in a career as an OHS professional. Typically, "real life" problems seldom fit into the standard textbook format. Group and team projects promote networking among students, and the virtual classrooms break down the geographical barriers.

A learning experience that is successful is one where the student understands the concept, is able to apply the concept to solve a problem, and develops a skill set to use the concept in his or her professional life. A good online learning experience does all three -- teaches the concept, applies the concept, and provides a skill set to transition it into the daily activities of the professional.

Future of Online Learning
Just a few words about the future. Online education is still in its adolescence and as technology advances, so, too, will tools to enhance learning and expand applications. The virtual 3-D environments such as Second Life are beginning to be used in this way, although to date they are not yet user-friendly enough. Augmented reality is another tool under development in which the real world is "augmented" by computer-generated input and response. This tool would allow a student to take the information directly from the virtual classroom and superimpose it onto his work settings. The most familiar example to date is the use of smart devices held overhead to identify stars in the sky. An augmented reality tool also can be designed for specific settings in the OHS and IH work environment.


  • Janicak, C.A. (2010). Is history repeating itself? Retrieved April 18, 2012, from
  • NIOSH. (2011). National assessment of the occupational safety and health workforce. Retrieved April 18, 2012, from
  • Nakayama, Shoji, (2012). SH&E Curriculum, Involving Practicing Safety Professionals in Its Development.” Journal of the American Society of Safety Engineers, May 2012, 68-73.
  • Carnevale Anthony, Rose Stephen, Cheah, Ban 2011. "The College Payoff Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings," Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Retrieved May 1, 2012, from
  • Skylar, Ashley 2009, "A Comparison of Asynchronous Online Text Based Lectures and Synchronous Interactive Web Conferencing Lectures," Issues in Teacher Education Fall 2009, 69-84.
  • Kehrwald, B. (2008). Understanding social presence in text-based online learning environments. Distance Education, 29(1), 89-106.
  • White, L. (2009), "Comparison of test results for on-line versus on-campus toxicology."

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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