Earlier this month, Yale announced its proposal to offer a new Physician Associate degree almost entirely online. The program will likely require only roughly two weeks total on campus over the course of its 28-month duration.
The proposal signals a renewed commitment to expanding online- and distance-learning opportunities — as program director James Van Rhee said, the new offering will allow more students in rural areas to achieve the prestige of a Yale degree without relocating to the Elm City.
But ultimately, the question is not whether the program will increase availability — indeed, organizers ultimately hope to expand the program from roughly 36 per class to about 350, according to Chandra Goff MED ’14 — but rather, at what cost this expanded access may come.
“[Yale] wants to [bring] an Ivy League education to more people and fulfill demand for primary care providers in the U.S.,” Goff said of the proposed PA program. “We agree with those goals, but we don’t think this is the right way to do it.”
A recent survey Goff conducted of Yale’s current and former PA students demonstrated an overwhelming opposition to the proposed blended program, largely because students are concerned that the online version of the program will not reach the same high standard as its on-campus equivalent.
Lucas Swineford, executive director of the Office of Dissemination and Online Education, said technology companies like 2U, which Yale has partnered with to provide the online program, have successfully worked to decrease the stigma associated with online degrees. But the students in the PA program were less sure.
Several students enrolled in the program said they feel that the online PA program will cheapen their degree and worsen public perception of it. One student who had planned to come to Yale in the fall even chose to switch PA programs following the announcement.
“One of the many reasons that I came to Yale to study medicine, was the weight that the Yale name carries behind it,” Kelsey O’Dell MED ’14 said in an email to the News. “If this online program is approved, I worry that patients will no longer trust my care as they once did.”
Currently, Yale advocates for online education in selective spheres. The University offers online courses, even almost completely online degrees, but wavers on the question of whether online courses are good enough for students in the college. For example, students withdrawn from Yale may not complete their two-course requirement using online courses.
Incoming students can also get a taste of the Yale education before arriving on campus, in the form of “Online Experiences for Yale Scholars,” a pre-calculus math module meant to prepare students for the University’s quantitative reasoning requirement. The pilot session of ONEXYS ran last summer, with 19 students following online lectures and working with tutors via Skype. The University announced in the fall that ONEXYS will expand to 40 students this coming summer.
However, ONEXYS is meant to be a supplement to a student’s education — not a replacement. Participants cannot use the class toward their QR requirements, and no grades are awarded.
The University has also furthered its efforts to expand online education in other fields. In January, the Massive Online Open Course selection, provided on the online education platform Coursera, was expanded. Still, students cannot receive Yale College credit for taking MOOCs.
However, while students interviewed said they support Yale’s efforts to make these classes available to people outside the University, no students interviewed expressed interest in taking a MOOC themselves.
Inside Higher Education recently published a study regarding 30 medical students in Germany who finished the first edition of a HarvardX MOOC titled “Global Health: Case Studies from a Biosocial Perspective.” Students took the MOOC independently, then participated in two mandatory classroom sessions toward the end of the course. Despite the quality of the online offerings, student feedback mainly consisted of recommendations to expand the portion of the MOOC that was conducted face-to-face. The study concluded that although MOOCs are valuable learning tools, it would be almost impossible to use them to completely replace the traditional classroom experience.
As the Inside Higher Ed study recommends, the PA program combines online components with some required face-to-face interaction. However, many current PA students have expressed concern that it will not include enough in-person teaching. Still, University administrators were more positive on the development.
“This program will be very intensive in terms of the interaction between students and faculty. This is not the kind of online endeavor that allows students to be passive,” said Linda Lorimer, vice president of global and strategic initiatives.
Approval for the online PA degree is currently pending from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant.