By the Book: Classroom vs Online Equine EducationSeptember 23, 2020
Thanks to COVID-19, with virtually no preparation, educators of all types were challenged this spring to deliver high-quality content to learners remotely. This transition was perhaps most challenging for those teaching subjects traditionally tied to hands-on or experiential instruction, including equine studies. With ongoing concerns regarding public health and safety carrying forward into the foreseeable future, some students are left wondering how best to proceed with their education, and whether an online learning experience is even valid in an applied field.
“By and large, the equine discipline has historically been, and I anticipate will continue to largely be, an interactive, face-to-face kind of discipline,” says Dr. Karin Bump, executive director of Cornell (N.Y.) Cooperative Extension and founder and director of the National Association of Equine Affiliated Academics (NAEAA). Bump adds that most equine undergraduate programs are filled with courses focused on hands-on experiences that are difficult to replicate online.
And while there has been a gradual increase of online offerings included in traditional, face-to-face (F2F) equine programs over the past decade, these classes tend to focus on background material, such as the history of the horse. Most technical, hands-on content is still delivered in person, in barns owned or leased by the school.
But tradition hasn’t stopped some colleges and universities from exploring how to effectively move more content online, where they can reach a different population of learners.
Post University has over 12,000 students pursuing online degrees, with just 800 choosing in-person instruction on their Waterbury, Conn. campus. Originally a business school, Post has offered a F2F bachelor’s degree in equine studies for many years (and continues to do so); in 2019, they launched an online version, the first program of its kind in the country.
“We are not replacing the on-campus program, we are adding to it,” says Abigail Nemec, Director of Programs of the School of Arts and Sciences and Program Chair for Equine Studies at Post. “We are playing with both modalities and pick and choose what works well.”
NAEAA was founded to provide undergraduate and extension equine educators with a network for communication and support, and its members held a series of online brainstorming sessions when F2F programs were forced online this spring. This collaboration allowed equine educators of all types to share resources and problem-solve the challenges of putting in person content online (see sidebar). But it also helped to better identify the different types of learner served by each modality, and how content can be delivered in such a way that students develop college level knowledge and understanding, regardless of the mode of instruction.
“Equine by and large is an entrepreneurial discipline,” says Bump. “We always have to evolve, and faculty and extension agents do as well. We need to have choices for everyone who wants to come into the industry. Certificate programs, two year, four year, and online—we need all of those choices, but the choices all need to be excellent at what they do.”
Most equine undergraduate programs evolved out of animal science degrees, which have been a mainstay at Land Grant universities for over half a century. With connections to state Extension programs and 4-H, animal science curriculums utilized their school’s agricultural lands and buildings as a living laboratory for their students. Today, equine degrees based on this model are offered at a range of public and private institutions, where they fill a unique niche in the equine education field.
“Access to animals, land, and facilities is a higher need now than it was 50 years ago,” says Bump. “For equine students, it is about giving them multiple exposures to multiple different horses over a period of time that builds the competencies.”
NAEAA completed a five-year longitudinal study that looked at the skills, backgrounds, and interests of students coming into F2F equine programs across the country. What they found was that while traditionally, animal science majors had grown up on farms and were familiar with husbandry practices, fewer students have this type of background today.
“Most students are coming in with a desire to work [with horses] and a passion about it and end up being really successful graduates,” explains Bump. “But they really need that hands-on piece.”
Most often, students attend F2F programs full time, taking three to five courses at once, giving them the broad exposure to new ideas and discussion that is essential for growth. Instruction is usually synchronous, meaning that the students and teacher are present at the same time and place. This “real time” interaction between instructors and students, and among the students themselves, is a critical part of their learning.
“Team based interactions [are] what they are looking for,” Bump says of F2F students. “It is what they thrive on.”
Online programs tend to be delivered asynchronously, meaning that students and instructors are not logging on at the same time. Content is delivered through videos, lectures, and reading assignments, along with virtual office hours. Many online students are balancing course work with full-time employment, family demands, and/or are returning to higher education after a break. The online student is more wholly responsible for guiding their learning than a F2F student.
“There is a slight difference in accountability for the online student,” says Nemec. “They have to assess the situation independently, and it is less of a didactic experience. But that doesn’t mean the online student gets less out of it. They have to be more self-sufficient.”
To become accredited, Post University’s online equine degree had to deliver the same courses and content as the F2F program. Determining how to do that remotely presented program leaders with a unique opportunity to break down their entire curriculum to its most essential elements.
“Creating a course that is intended to be online means really going back to square one,” says Nemec. “What is the outcome intended for this course? And how much time do you have? You have to take it subject by subject, and it has to be curated, assignment by assignment.”
Certain assignments, such as research papers, readily lend themselves to both in person and online modalities. But others require instructors to become more creative. For example, Post’s on campus nutrition course requires students to take a hay corer to a local farm, obtain a hay sample for analysis, interview the farm owner about their horses, and then use all of this information to create dietary recommendations for the herd. In the online version, students choose from six pre-written scenarios that include some, but not all, of the necessary information. Students must review the info, assess photos of the horses and the results of the farm’s hay analysis, determine what information is missing, and then go to the “client” (the course instructor) to fill in the gaps.
“It’s not less on the learning, it is a different means of learning,” says Nemec.
But hands on equine experience is still a required component to Post’s online degree. All hands-on assignments requiring a live horse are gathered into one course, and students are advised by admissions counselors prior to enrollment that this mandatory class will necessitate equine access. It is then up to the student to “problem-solve” arrangements. Video assignments are evaluated not just on the student’s demonstration of skill, but also on their management of the environment around them.
“Everyone has a high-quality camera in their pocket and can upload anything from anywhere,” says Nemec of the technical requirements for students. “I spend hours recording prepared video tutorials that show students how to use a spreadsheet, for example. There is tons of support.”
Making the Choice
Ultimately, the choice between a traditional F2F program and one that is mostly or wholly online comes down to what the student hopes to get out of their study, and what kind of learner they are.
“Students choosing the on-campus experience want to look at someone and talk about the material and integrate it with their other courses,” says Nemec. “The online program moves twice as fast and students only take one or two courses at a time. There is an intensity to that and the student’s acquisition of the learning—that one subject becomes all they think about.”
Students should consider their background, career goals, and reason for pursuing additional education when choosing a program.
“Someone who is looking to get a degree but has grown up in the industry and already has that common skill set may be very successful with a web-based, tutorial, show and learn kind of thing,” says Bump. “They know that the value is that they will get all the other things that come with a college degree. The horses are icing on the cake.”
F2F students choose this option largely for the interaction with faculty and peers and the opportunity to interact with a variety of different horses in unique educational settings.
“A main campus student does not want to take an online course where they go through their exercises, submit their assignment, and participate via a discussion board,” says Nemec. “That is not why they are here.”
The Pandemic Pivot
By mid-March 2020, nearly every college and university in the U.S. was forced to use remote instruction for the duration of their terms. For F2F equine program faculty, this shift meant reconceptualizing assignments to give their students a meaningful experience not requiring direct access to horses. Experts want to make one thing clear: shoehorning a F2F class into an online version under emergency circumstances is not a representation of online learning at its best.
“Online learning is a whole other thing,” says Abigail Nemec, Director of Programs of the School of Arts and Sciences and Program Chair for Equine Studies at Post University. “Planning and designing those courses so they can be taught asynchronously requires so much management, planning, and preparation. You have to build video tutorials and assignments. You have the same number of student engagement hours online or in person, but there is a different pace of ‘sense-making’ that students engage in during the learning experience.”
Because F2F students are accustomed to being together with their instructor and peers, during the pandemic many programs opted to use a synchronous approach to online learning. This is how on-campus Post students have been taught on snow days for the past five years. When campus closed in March, the F2F students met synchronously with their instructors through an online learning management system. Students enrolled in the online program continued their instruction asynchronously.
As college programs prepare for fall semester, the National Association of Equine Affiliated Academics (NAEAA) has been working to gather resources so that F2F programs facing remote learning again this fall can offer their students the best instruction possible. This includes shared lectures on specialty topics, remote panel discussions, and other unique approaches to disseminating important content.
“We have been helping to determine what classes make sense and are viable online, and which ones really aren’t,” says Dr. Karin Bump, executive director of Cornell (N.Y.) Cooperative Extension and founder and director of NAEAA. “Maybe those become a one week intensive or get moved from fall to spring term.”
Bump credits NAEAA members for their spirit of collegiality, rather than competition, as educators navigate uncharted waters.
“It is the exposure, the dialogue, the hands-on learning that drives that critical part for our industry, to produce graduates that will really succeed,” says Bump. “This is not about ‘how do we make do.’ This is about asking, ‘how do we knock it out of the park’ and making sure that our students are getting the best.”
By Christina Keim