More students than ever are flying through college on the Internet. For those seeking aviation degrees, though, the Federal Aviation Administration wants you to keep one foot on the ground — at least part of the time.
Distance learning is a growing phenomenon. More than 6.7 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2011 term, according to the latest figures available from the Babson Survey Research Group.
With the trend toward more online courses, many students — including former service members — are racking up at least some of their aviation credits via distance learning. At the same time, the FAA still wants to see students in the classroom when it comes to practical applications.
At the Aviation Institute of Maintenance in Kansas City, Mo., for example, a student can fulfill a single course with 30 hours of online work covering academic subjects such as math and science, along with 15 hours in the classroom to fulfill the hands-on shop time the FAA wants to see. “They could spend a portion of their time at home and then come down on a Thursday and complete all those practical exercises,” said campus Director of Education Damon Cook.
Nestor Bautista, 47, has struck just such a balance. The retired Navy senior chief left service in December, having worked as an aviation structural mechanic. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Worldwide, thanks in part to online study, and recently graduated with a master’s in management.
“Because it was self-paced, I actually learned more,” he said of his online coursework. “You are forced to read the book and really understand the material; otherwise, you won’t be able to answer the problems or do the exercises.”
Bautista took the online courses while in Iraq and Virginia. Unable to get to classes, or to study full time, he joined the millions of Americans who find Internet-based college an appealing option.
“The good thing about being online: If you’re a full-time working person, you can really manage your time better by adjusting your school schedule around your work. As long as you can log in and turn in your requirements, you get a lot of flexibility,” he said.
Online study is still relatively new in the world of aviation, where hands-on requirements have kept some schools from pursuing this option. But some are embracing the possibilities.
Purdue University, for instance, offers a master’s in technology with an aviation management concentration 100 percent via distance learning.
Embry-Riddle offers 16 online degree programs, including maintenance, aviation security, project management, logistics and an MBA in aviation. Of 64,000 registered students, half are signed up for some online coursework, said Dr. Katherine A. Moran, chair of the school’s department of aeronautics.
“Online is the way to go. We can do so much now, putting students in these virtual worlds,” she said. “If you can’t have that classroom experience, maybe because of your location, it’s the next best thing.”
For those in uniform, the prospect of distance learning offers a double advantage, beyond the promise of college credits. “They are not only applying this to the degree programs. They are going to work the next day and applying it to their workplace,” Moran said.
Classroom lectures online
In addition to individual study, Embry-Riddle also uses video feeds to deliver classroom lectures simultaneously to multiple students in diverse locations.
Online work typically embraces theoretical topics, while students can learn more practical skills at most of the school’s 150 locations. They can also apply their military experience to collect college credits for practical work.
Taken together, the practical work and the online courses prepare students to test for the FAA’s Airframe and Powerplant license, a prerequisite for work in the profession.
With all of the advantages of an online education, Moran still offers a caution: Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
It takes about a week to complete a module at Embry-Riddle, and courses typically include nine to 10 modules. Even studying on your own, this can represent a significant time commitment.
“You have to be cautious about how many courses you take on at one time, and that means communicating with faculty,” Moran said. “They understand the military mindset, and they will help you to know what your limitations are.”