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Positive and Negative Virtues, and Future Directions in Online Education for Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Daniel Baracskay
October 12, 2018

Decades ago, Malcom Knowles popularized the concept of andragogy, or a learning theory focused on how adults absorb knowledge based upon an intrinsic enthusiasm to acquire new information while linking it to past experiences. As found in “Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers” and “The modern practice of adult education: Andragogy versus pedagogy,” Knowles distinguished between learning in childhood (compelled) versus learning in adulthood (voluntary). Though intrinsic motivations differ for learners at various points in their lifespans, a focus on exploration, analysi and engaged interaction has shaped our understanding of learning techniques. There has been considerable focus on transformative learning approaches that utilize meaningful activities which are engaging for students, while affording ample opportunities to provide feedback and help build upon new skillsets. This is particularly the case for practitioner-oriented fields like public administration where the theory-practice link has shaped learning approaches in adult education.

Positive and Negative Virtues of Online Education

Traditional, hybrid and fully online courses all build the skillsets of public administration students in undergraduate and graduate programs. The internet revolution has surpassed the twenty-year mark in academia, making fully online and hybrid courses the most recent evolutionary step in educational opportunities. While the public sector and institutions of higher education have historically been slower to adopt technological advancements, both have rapidly embraced technology in the form of eGovernment and learning management systems respectively, and there is a nexus between both spheres. Electronic course offerings have increased significantly across the spectrum of majors, with online MPA programs becoming particularly popular selections for practitioners. Online formats have both positive and negative features. On a positive note, online education has broadened access to larger and more diverse numbers of students, and introduced a powerful new medium for delivering content in a visual environment that is appealing to learners. It has particularly appealed to adult learners, who due to personal and professional demands, would otherwise not be able to re-enter the classroom. This has special applicability in graduate level MPA programs where public service employees have returned to the classroom to upgrade their skills and learn new applicable ideas for solving challenges in complex workplaces. Coinciding with Knowles’ approach to andragogy, adult learners comprised of public administrators returning to the classroom as well as new students desiring a career in the public sector benefit from learning environments where experiential lessons and exercises allow them to apply theories to existing or hypothetical circumstances that are commonly found in modern workplaces. Students of all ages and backgrounds have shared ideas with other learners, both nationally and internationally, allowing them to broaden their horizons and explore unfamiliar cultures. And online courses have opened the doors of education to students with disabilities who otherwise may not be able to participate in the learning process.

However, there are also negativities in online learning which will continue to pose challenges that institutions of higher education will need to address as time progresses. A significant question remains in how to most meaningfully bridge the theory-practice divide, such that practitioners find value in nontraditional learning environments that help update the skills needed to flourish in public sector organizations. Further, there is consensus that students often misperceive the time and effort needed to succeed in an online program, particularly in balancing their professional, personal, and educational lives. Plagiarism, time management issues and technological deficiencies continue to be critical areas of reflection for students as they prepare for courses in upcoming semesters. There is faculty consensus that more time is devoted to assessment procedures and providing evidence that students are learning, which is time consuming and sometimes tedious, though worthwhile if it facilitates the learning process.

Looking Toward the Future of Online Education

Just as computers and software packages in the 1980s revolutionized how work was completed, online technology has likewise become enduring and irreversible in recent times. In a short period of two decades, eGovernment and online learning have become permanent staples of public administration as a profession, both mutually reinforcing the direction of public service in a complex globally-connected world. With public administration being a practitioner-oriented field, online education may be tailored to offer opportunities to learn new theories and apply them to practical exercises that parallel what may be encountered in modern work settings. While each workplace is unique in how it operates and interacts with its external environment, there are commonalities which exist that can be linked to effectively teaching students ideas that will benefit them throughout their careers. Ethical conduct, managerial and leadership skills, technological proficiency, analytical aptitude and working in diverse environments, individually and as members of a program, unit and team, are all significant features of modern workplaces. Online education does not signify the end of learning in physical classroom settings or the declining need for infrastructure or physical college and university campuses. Rather, it represents an evolving and accessible means for adult learners to update their skills and acquire new knowledge.

Author: Dr. Daniel Baracskay is a professor of Political Science and Public Administration at Valdosta State University, where he teaches graduate level courses in the MPA and DPA programs. He has taught traditional, hybrid, and online courses for more than twenty-years, and is author of the book Scope and Theory of Public Administration: The Shaping Influences of Interdisciplinary Discourse, as well as articles in sources like the Journal of Health and Human Services Administration, Global Public Health, Public Voices, and Public Administration and Management. His email address is: [email protected].

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