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Ageworks: the evolution of gerontology education.


There is a tremendous demand for gerontology and geriatrics education. Ageworks is the innovative multimedia division of the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California. During the past 5 years Ageworks has created, managed and distributed online courses and products related to gerontology (the study of human aging) to students, professionals working in aging fields, and members of the general public. The first cohort of students has now graduated with an M.A. from this online program. This paper describes the creation of this program and identifies key summative outcomes.


This paper details a comprehensive analysis of the nation's first online gerontology program. The authors were tasked with performing a program evaluation following the completion of the fifth year of the Andrus Center's online gerontology program. This paper is a summary of those findings. Ageworks is the innovative multimedia division of the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California. Andrus is the nation's oldest and largest private educational center devoted entirely to gerontology. During the past 5 years Ageworks has created, managed and distributed courses and educational products related to gerontology (the study of human aging) to students, professionals working in aging fields, and members of the general public. This paper outlines the process by which the Ageworks team designed and implemented the nation's first completely online Master of Art's degree in gerontology and discusses several key summative outcomes from the first cohort of graduates. Although it is recognized most institutions may lack either the financial, technological or human resources to replicate the efforts described, many departments, programs and even individual faculty members will benefit from this narrative.

From its inception, Ageworks followed three specific principles. First, the Ageworks team recognized early on that there exists a large demand for gerontology education. Kim, et al found that less than 10% of those currently working with older adults had actually had any formal training in either geriatrics or gerontology (1998). Second, for a variety of reasons, students today generally tend to be older, work more, are less likely to want a residential educational experience, and should therefore be viewed as discerning consumers. Third, it is possible to deliver a high quality educational experience via the Internet. In fact, this medium and type of learning may actually enhance the learning experience of many students, particularly adults (Knowles, 1984). From these principles, a five-year strategy to create an on-line Master's degree in gerontology was developed. The details of that strategy are described below.

There is a tremendous demand for education in gerontology. Few academic disciplines have grown as rapidly as gerontology over the last decades (Peterson, D., Wendt, P. and Douglass, E., 1994). In 1957, 57 colleges and universities offered credit courses in gerontology (Masunaga, H., Peterson, D., and Seymour, R., 1998). Thirty-five years later, 1,639 campuses offered such courses (Peterson, D., Douglass, E., Seymour, R. and Wendt, P. 1997). Despite this growth in academic programs and on-campus students, few professionals working with older Americans have ever had any formal training in gerontology. Moreover, the number of professionals working with older persons is increasing exponentially. Ageworks decided to systematically consider how these growing numbers of professionals would obtain a high-quality education in gerontology. One obvious approach was through professional (non-credit) residential training. But many professionals have expressed interest in acquiring additional graduate (for credit) training and degrees. While it is possible for some of these professionals to come to campus, the vast majority need to work full time and/or cannot leave their young children or older relatives for whom they provide care. Additionally, the team speculated that there are many disabled students who would prefer to study within the comforts of their home environments. The team believed that these two groups would comprise the bulk of the initial online graduate student population. It was anticipated that those with full time jobs would take 2 to 3 years to complete the curriculum. By October of 1998 (only 3 months into program implementation), with little advertising the program had received over 450 inquires from individuals across the United States requesting applications and additional information about on-line gerontology courses.

The Andrus Center has a long history of leadership in the field of aging and so it made sense to pioneer an online gerontology program. Andrus has a reputation for developing innovative educational programs including the world's first Ph.D. in gerontology, first joint Master's degree in Gerontology and Business Administration and first undergraduate Health Science Track in Gerontology. In September 1997, Ageworks introduced an online component to one on-campus course, Gerontology 200: the Science of Adult Development. The division also received a grant from a private organization that allowed them to teach a graduate level introductory course in Gerontology via the Internet. The course was met with overwhelming enthusiasm.

Based in part on this experience, a plan was devised to offer an Online Masters in Gerontology but discussions with the Schools of Social Work and Public Administration were initiated and these units planed, in the short term, to develop joint online graduate programs. Ageworks offered the first graduate course, Perspectives on Aging: An Introduction to Gerontology (Gerontology 500) to the general public in the fall of 1998. Several other courses were developed and over the next two years a total of 7 courses were completed and comprised a 28 unit Master of Art's in Gerontology degree. All these courses are comparable to current on-campus graduate courses, with the exception of the Perspectives on Aging: An Introduction to Gerontology (Gerontology 500), an introductory elective course in gerontology for those without any formal gerontology training. The online program is oriented to professionals working with seniors who would benefit from these courses that relate to their work experience. Once it was determined that the Ageworks products (graduate courses) were of the highest quality and comparable to those offered on campus, the division was subsumed by the School of Gerontology and the online students recognized as fully matriculated gerontology students.

The Plan

The Ageworks program was based around a five-year plan. The idea was to create one course at a time, one semester at a time and move students through in cohorts. As previously stated, the program ultimately needed to create a minimum of seven (7) courses for a total of 28 units. It was assumed that each course (the content) would have a fairly long life cycle, perhaps 5 to 7 years and we would regularly update links, information, graphics and technology. This updating would be accomplished on an as needed basis and would involve content experts as well as programmers. The total cost of the program was estimated at $600,000. This number includes all production costs, advertising, administrative overhead, faculty salaries and other program costs. The idea was to not only recoup these costs but to net a $400,000 "profit" (the school is of course, a nonprofit organization so the use of this term is figurative) over the five years of the program.

Obstacles and Issues

There were and are, of course, several obstacles and costs associated with the development and delivery of an online Master's degree. Perhaps the first and most important problem related to the issue of credibility. Many potential students were/are reluctant to enroll in an expensive education program delivered via the Internet for fear that the degree would not have the same level of distinction as a residential program. The Ageworks approach to this problem has been twofold. First, they collected and disseminated newspaper articles and magazine clippings from popular media that describe and discuss current trends in educational technology and the ongoing revolution in distance learning. Next, the program attempts to stay abreast (and make potential students aware) of distinguished universities and institutions offering for credit graduate courses (and degrees) via the Internet. These institutions include Duke, Seton Hall, Stanford and Cornell universities (Renold, 2000).

Another serious obstacle to offering an online Master's degree in gerontology was convincing both our university's administration and our accrediting body, The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, of both the need for and ability to provide the highest quality gerontology program. In short, the program was required to present in specific detail how they would deliver a rigorous and comparable program to distant learners. This process included writing and presenting a lengthy proposal, speaking to and defending our proposed program to several groups and ultimately revising the program in several instances. This process covered approximately one year from beginning to end. Another significant obstacle was the process of encouraging tenured faculty to participate in this program. Faculty were initially skeptical of teaching online. At first it was thought that one remedy might be employing non-tenure track, clinical faculty to teach online courses. This however, was problematic for two reasons. First, students are recruited into the program based on the promise that they will receive instruction from tenure level faculty. Employing clinical faculty does not provide this. In short, without the buy-in of "regular" faculty, the online program was doomed to a relatively short existence.

Summative outcomes

By the end of the Spring of 2004, over 60 students had enrolled in the online MA program. In the Summer of 2003 a survey was distributed among the first cohort of graduates. A profile of the students and the results of the survey follow:

* 12 students have graduated from the program

* 10 responded to the survey

* Average Age: 49

* Males: 5

* Females: 5

* M.A.: 7

* Certificate: 3

Current Employment Characteristics:

* Executive V.P. and Chief Operations Officer

* Gero-journalist

* Program Associate

* Housing Administrator

* Administrator

* Consultant for Community Service

* Assistant Dean of Nursing

* Vice President of Finance and Chief Financial Officer

* Vice President of Information Systems & Chief information Officer

* Executive Director

Outcome Questions:

1. Based on your experience, would you recommend this online program to other working adults? Yes: 10 No: 0

2. Did this program meet your expectations? Yes: 10 No: 0

3. Inpart, this program has lead to a job change or promotion. Yes: 5 No: 5

4. In general, the program instructors demonstrated expertise and professional experience in the subject. Strongly Agree: 10

5. In general, the program contributed practical knowledge I can use in my current job. Strongly Agree: 8 Agree: 2

6. The course websites contributed to an effective learning experience. a. Strongly Agree: 8 Agree: 2

7. The size of the courses helped to make an effective learning experience. a. Strongly Agree: 6 Agree: 3 Neutral: 1

8. During this program, administration and staff were helpful. a. Strongly Agree: 6 Agree: 4

9. Throughout the course of my studies, I received accurate and appropriate technical support. Strongly Agree: 4 Agree: 5 Neutral: 1

10. For an average online class, indicate the number of hours per week you spent: Online: 5 hours

11. In other course activities (e.g., individual study and reading, library, or other research): 6 hours

What are a few positive things you could say about this experience?

This on line program offered one of the few ways a person could continue to work in a high level position and still further his or her professional education. This must be the future of education for post BA degree seekers.

The course work provided compelling material and fueled significant rethinking concerning how I should approach my job and mission of providing technical support and integration services for aging services continuums. The online format provided the only possible venue through which I could have achieved this. Gerontology is well respected and with my intense full time job and family of four kids, I could not have gained access to an equivalent experience. Graduation will be the first time I have been on campus.

It was great to able to pursue an educational opportunity without the physical inconvenience of geography. Additionally I enjoyed being part of a class where my fellow students are all working in this industry of senior care. The brought considerable depth to the conversations and made the experience even more enjoyable, interesting and informative.

I absolutely adored my online Gerontology MA experience. One of the most positive aspects of the program for me was the high quality and accessibility of the professors. They were always accessible (whether by phone or email) to spend significant time with me when I needed assistance. They were readily available to answer questions I had about issues related to the coursework, research inquiries and future career moves. I also enjoyed the stimulating and timely curriculum and felt that the interactive nature of the courses added to my academic experience. Being taught by some of the most influential minds in the gerontology world was an incredible advantage and privilege. Also, the Gerontology administrative office was always extremely helpful and accommodating.

It was very challenging and educational. I am using the knowledge I gained from the courses at work and also gained more concepts of working with the elderly. I really enjoyed the courses.

Allowed me to work full-time and "attend" class when convenient, faculty was topnotch, met many interesting people in the aging field in my class and established good relationships


The evaluators believe that the Ageworks program has made significant progress in developing the nation's first completely online Master's degree in gerontology. Students are pleased with the course content and delivery and by all accounts the program has produced a rigorous, high-quality educational product. Moreover, as the program has developed and marketing efforts advanced, the program has developed a solid brand and the reputation is growing in professional gerontological circles. It is anticipated that continued student growth and faculty involvement will lead to continuing success. The program may struggle in a few key areas, however. Faculty involvement is problematic due to the fact that at most large research institutions pedagogical innovation and teaching count for very little toward tenure and/or promotion. While most administrators acknowledge these as important aspects of the overall student experience, unless and until faculty members toiling in these endeavors are rewarded for their efforts, for-credit online programs at research universities will likely loose students to colleges and universities whose missions focus on a balance of teaching and research.

Final Thoughts

In order to insure continued success, the program needs to seriously consider implementing several key changes. First, the program must work on building relationships with students and revisit the initial commitment to them as adult consumers. The program appears to be most successful in retaining students when there is an established and sustained relationship. Online students (at least those in this program) still need to feel as if they are a part of a learning community albeit in cyber space. Specifically, students desire to feel like as if they are a part of the university community and that they have a personal relationship with faculty and program staff. It is clear that if they do not, they will likely find another vendor (new programs in gerontology are coming on-line fairly regularly--The University of Washington now offers an online graduate certificate in gerontology for example).

Next, strategic institutional support is paramount. It is not enough to be in the on-line business simply because "everybody else is doing it." Top-down commitment from administrators and faculty who provide financial, technological and leadership support are essential.

Additionally, it is clear that online programs benefit from alliances and coordination with other units on campus. This strengthens course offerings, enhances the multidisciplinary nature of gerontology and allows for greater collaboration and technological innovation. Sharing course content and resources in this way can give a program additional depth and credibility. Despite these concerns, the online gerontology program developed by Ageworks has met with a great deal of success. With continued effort the number of enrolled students will soon surpass those in the traditional on-campus program. Despite several significant obstacles, the online program has, in less than five years revolutionized both the school and university.


Kim, J. and Peterson, D. (1999). Core content in gerontology instruction: alumni perceptions. Gerontology and Geriatrics Education. Vol. 20 (No. 1) 41-50.

Knowles, M. (1984). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. (3rd ed). Houston, Tx.: Gult.

Masunaga, H., Peterson, D., and Seymour, R. (1998). Effect of gerontology education: a 21-year report. Educational Gerontology. Jan-Feb. Vol. 24 (No. 1) 79-89.

Peterson, D., Wendt, P. and Douglass, E. (1994). Development of gerontology, geriatrics, and aging studies programs in institutions of higher education. Association for Gerontology in Higher Education. Washington, D.C. 1994.

Peterson, D., Douglass, E., Seymour, R. and Wendt, P. (1997). Aging education and training: priorities for grant making foundations. Association for Gerontology in Higher Education. Washington, D.C.

Renold, C. (2000). Developing an online gerontology program. Gerontology and Geriatrics Education. Vol. 20 (No. 4) 20-32.

Carl Renold, California State University, Fullerton John Doyle, California State University, Fullerton Maria Henke, California State University, Fullerton

Renold, Ph.D., and Doyle, Ph.D., are Assistant Professors in the Department of Human Services. Henke is an Instructor in the Department of Human Services.
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Author:Henke, Maria
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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