Jason Lee (center) holds a sign to represent the online accounting degree completion program. He is joined by (left to right) accounting faculty Chunnan Zhang, Rebecca Fox, Mohamed Gaber and Karen Naaman.
By Aleksandra Sidorova
SUNY Plattsburgh appeared on Forbes Advisor’s “Best Online Colleges in New York of 2023” list Sept. 13.
Sophomore Reilly Costello has experienced both online and in-person learning at SUNY Plattsburgh and said Forbes’ recognition of the college’s online learning is “very well deserved.”
“Both in-person and online, my experiences at SUNY Plattsburgh have been nothing but great,” Costello said.
SUNY Plattsburgh’s online programs are primarily aimed at nontraditional students with some college experience, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs JoAnn Gleeson-Kreig said. While the programs cannot give an online student the start for their degree, they certainly can help them finish it.
According to SUNY Online’s database, SUNY Plattsburgh currently offers four advanced certificate programs, four bachelor’s degree completion programs for transfer students and three master’s degrees in areas of accounting, business administration, education, fitness and wellness leadership, nursing and social work. SUNY Plattsburgh’s website lists eight more: a combined bachelor’s and master’s program in accounting and data analytics; minors in accounting, forensic accounting and finance; a certificate in global social action; and a degree in global supply chain management. All are conducted completely online, with no in-person requirements, which is a criterion Forbes considered in its rankings.
Three of the programs are featured as SUNY Online Signature Programs — markers that signify the programs “exemplify the best of what SUNY has to offer in online-enabled education.” Programs also receive appropriate accreditation in their respective fields.
Kwangseek Choe, coordinator for SUNY Plattsburgh’s online programs in business administration, noted that Forbes’ description highlights the online program in global supply chain management. He said it has been approved by New York state, but has not yet officially launched.
Plattsburgh’s online programs don’t follow “just one formula,” Gleeson-Kreig said. Courses are usually targeted at specific kinds of students. A class that is asynchronous, meaning with no set meeting times, is usually the move for students who have a job to work and families to support. Chair of Accounting Jason Lee said some students in online programs are attending college at the same time as their adult children.
“Our students are such unique individuals and what they sacrifice to be able to get this degree is amazing, and I feel like I’m a part of that journey,” Amelia Lushia, academic coordinator for the online accounting programs, said.
Choe said he wants to get more feedback and improve the business administration program, but as chair of the supply chain management and international business departments, there is only so much he can do for a program that extends beyond his disciplines.
Another area of concern for online programs is students’ interactions with their instructors and peers, and their connection with the campus. To facilitate this, coordinators are working to connect students with the help of the clubs and organizations on campus. Lushia said she made videos touring the campus, which were well-received, and some students even visit the campus in-person for graduation. Richards said this is working out well for students in the online social work program: Faculty offer optional class sessions on Zoom and “pop-up coffee hours.” Sometimes, social work students get assigned collaborative projects, in which they need to connect with each other and record a video together.
“We’ve intentionally tried to design that so that they feel that they have a cohort that they can turn to lifelong,” Richards said. “They become your lifelong friends, and so we really didn’t want that to be lost for online students not connecting with each other, and finding support and kindred spirits.”
Ava Rosenbaum, a senior double-majoring in social work and gender and women’s studies with a psychology minor, started her online learning journey during the pandemic. She spent her first year fully online while on campus, made the choice to take online gen ed courses in her second year, and went into the online social work program in her junior year. Now, in her senior year, Rosenbaum is back in-person.
In many ways, Rosenbaum’s interactions with her cohort in-person and online mirror each other: She still talks with her peers after class to debrief, except now “there’s a 20-year-old in front of me.”
Rosenbaum worked 40 hours a week while taking 18 credits last semester. The coursework being online made it easy, she said.
Having nontraditional students in the class also encourages more learning, Rosenbaum found. Adult learners are able to bring a breadth of perspectives and experiences to the class discussion.
“I love in-person too — I really do — but online, the experience was so rich compared to what I’ve experienced in other, throwaway online classes,” Rosenbaum said. “Having an adult learner in class makes the class better. I think it just does. I think that learning with people who are older challenges you to think more about your own position more.”
Besides asynchronous and hybrid courses, the university is getting closer to offering courses in a hyflex modality, which allows students attending the class online to hear and see the same things that the students attending the class physically can, including any questions and comments from the in-person students, Gleeson-Kreig said. This is “hard on faculty” and requires specialized classrooms equipped with the necessary equipment, such as a ceiling microphone, as well as expensive servers to store the recordings on, Gleeson-Kreig said.
Choe’s teaching materials include lecture notes and recordings of lectures, as well as discussion forums and weekly assignments. Next semester, Choe will teach a hyflex class: He will teach a class of in-person students and upload the recording for online students.
While there are no components requiring students to physically appear on campus, some programs require internship or fieldwork experience. Students either seek out placement themselves, or utilize a connection within the department.
Another way SUNY Plattsburgh recognizes the difference between online and traditional student needs is support. Advising falls on program chairs, like Choe, Lee and Richards. Besides coordinating the online accounting programs, Lushia is a coach for student success, advising 75 to 120 students.
Student support is also a pillar of Adviser and Success Coach Emily Kuhne and Academic Coordinator Christopher Ryan’s jobs. Kuhne graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh in 2017. After supporting online learners at SUNY Central since 2019, she found herself back at her alma mater in March. She is based in the Queensbury branch of SUNY Plattsburgh and sometimes meets with students who live in the area.
Ryan, in his mid-30s, works full-time while enrolled in Stony Brook University’s online graduate program in higher education administration. This experience helps him relate to the approximately 300 students enrolled in the School of Education, Health and Human Services’ online programs, whom he provides with self-help tools, strategic interventions, advocacy and connections to relevant campus resources.
“I know what it means to be busy. While I don’t have kids and dependents, I’m filling my time with other things, where you feel that kind of competition for your resources, where your time is finite. Hopefully, I’m just providing things that the students want,” Ryan said. “Students come to us with their dreams and goals and visions, and it’s up to us to provide the scaffolding for these things, and hopefully, we’re doing a good job.”
Costello’s experience shows online learning executed well can help traditional students, too. Costello’s childhood education major is a program that requires in-person instruction. Yet, the college’s capacity for online learning allows her to keep working toward her degree while she is in Florida participating in the Disney College Program.
Costello is taking only gen ed courses conducted asynchronously. Costello said she enjoys completing work at a time that works for her as she works five days a week.
“I can make my own schedule. I don’t have to be at class at a certain time,” Costello said. “I can do the work at a time that works for me, if that’s 2 a.m., 2 p.m., in EPCOT, in Starbucks — I can do it whenever and wherever works for me, and I honestly love the flexibility.”
Costello said her instructors have been understanding of her learning disabilities — she has ADHD and is on the autism spectrum. What doesn’t work, Costello said, is that online learning has less structure than a formal, classroom setting.
“Sometimes I need the structure, so it’s been difficult learning how to, well, learn without the structure of a classroom setting,” Costello said.
While on campus, Costello’s support system consisted of professors, the Learning Center and her friends. In Florida, Costello has had to make adjustments. For example, Costello’s roommate from France helps her with her French class.
Rosenbaum said SUNY Plattsburgh’s social work program is “healing.” As a sexual assault survivor, Rosenbaum said she felt she had to hide a part of herself in college, but SUNY Plattsburgh proved her otherwise.
“Social work, as a program, has been so healing for me, whether it be online or in-person. I’ve just never felt so emotionally supported by a program, and I’ve only been in person for, like, a month, so these are feelings that were fostered online,” Rosenbaum said. “Coming from a place that was not supportive of me into a college that very much is and a program that I feel really takes care of its students, I’ve never felt so valued as a person or an intellectual, actually.”
Gleeson-Kreig said successful online programs are aimed at the “right kind of learner,” and the “right kind of faculty” can make learning engaging. Having the appropriate technology, from learning management systems to servers, also improves students’ experience.
“I’m proud of the idea of making a difference in people’s lives,” Lee said.