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Cyberschool: online law enforcement classes.

Both administrators and line officers agree that law enforcement training does not end at the police academy. Peace officer standards and training boards require that officers receive additional training every year; the courts hold departments responsible if they fail to train their officers: and citizens want well-trained officers protecting them. As a result, with the support of their commanders, officers attend in-service training to improve their skills or learn new ones.

At the same time, a growing number of police agencies have realized that education - broad-based instruction that generally teaches why rather than how - benefits their employees by providing the theoretical foundation they need to understand issues and apply learned skills to new situations. Many agencies require that their entry-level officers possess some college education; many also require undergraduate degrees for command-level positions. Generally, educational requirements increase with rank.

While they recognize the importance of education and training for their employees, police administrators faced with limited resources remain reluctant to send employees for training beyond the minimum number of hours mandated by their state's regulatory agency. Off-site classes mean paying for travel, lodging, and meals, in addition to tuition. Even local or on-site courses mean the loss of the employee for the training period. To compensate, agencies either must pay other employees overtime or reduce the agency's level of service to the community, a choice many administrators find hard to make.

The new watchword for educators and trainers alike is distance learning. Using means as simple as videocassettes or as sophisticated as two-way audio and video teleconferencing systems, distance learning has become the correspondence course of the 21st century. Students can receive the training or education they need without placing too great a burden on their personal and professional lives. Distance learning may, in fact, be the only chance busy law enforcement professionals have to obtain the training they need.

Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, is home to two online educational programs - CNU ONLINE and The Mid-Atlantic Police Supervisory Institute (MAPSI) - available to law enforcement officers. CNU ONLINE is a computer-based Internet communication system that allows students to take accredited college courses and, in fact, entire degree programs without physically attending any classes.

MAPSI gives first-line supervisors an efficient, cost-effective way to develop the administrative, leadership, and ethical skills they need to succeed in their positions. As important, they can take classes without losing valuable time from work. This article describes both of these innovative programs.


Since the fall of 1993, Christopher Newport University has offered online courses across the curriculum. One particular degree program - the bachelor of science in governmental administration - allows students to complete their studies entirely online. With concentrations in public management, criminal justice administration, international administration, and legal studies, the governmental administration program can provide valuable education for law enforcement officers, who only need to come to campus if they choose to participate in the graduation ceremony.

The MAPSI program grew naturally from CNU ONLINE. Recognizing the benefits that newly promoted officers receive from additional education and training, chiefs from several southeastern Virginia police departments met with CNU faculty and other law enforcement executives to design an educational program for first-line supervisors. Everyone agreed that the ability to deliver the course material online was fundamental to MAPSI's success.

Six of the courses from CNU ONLINE's governmental administration major, tailored for law enforcement officers, provide the foundation for MAPSI. The courses address leadership strategies, human resource management, planning and evaluation, budget, ethics in government, and police organization and management.

After completing four courses, MAPSI students receive a certificate. They also can apply the 12 credits they earn toward the requirements for the bachelor of science degree in governmental administration.


CNU ONLINE and MAPSI courses allow students to complete the required work at a pace that complements their work and personal schedules. Depending on their course loads, students can complete the MAPSI program in 9 to 21 months without being absent from normal duties. Students also may complete the entire program through a single semester of full-time attendance.

Four half-day Saturday workshops give MAPSI students practical information designed specifically for working police officers. Thus, although governmental administration students share classes with MAPSI students, only MAPSI students attend the workshops.

Workshop speakers cover police personnel issues, community policing concepts, and leadership strategies, to name a few. Students who cannot attend these on-campus seminars receive a videotape of the program along with the presenter's e-mail address. In the near future, the university plans to install videoconferencing equipment, which will enable experts from all over the world to engage in real-time discussions with students in different locations.

The Saturday workshops mark the only difference in course structure for MAPSI students. In all other respects, MAPSI students cover the same academic ground as governmental administration majors. In fact, they are enrolled in the same online classes, and in the traditional classroom, they would sit side by side.

Yet, conventional approaches to education do not work in the virtual classroom. Even more so than in traditional college courses, online classes must emphasize critical thinking, independent study, and interaction among all of the students and the instructor. To do this, CNU instructors keep students interested and involved through a variety of challenging assignments, both formal and informal.


Formal assignments generally include several group projects, as well as weekly essays, which usually are based on a reading from the textbook. Other tasks include quote analysis, in which students identify a short quotation from an assigned reading and, in two paragraphs, paraphrase it and defend or refute it using at least one outside reference. This type of exercise helps students develop analytical ability, while forcing them to express their ideas concisely. Group projects teach students to overcome the obstacles and recognize the benefits of teamwork, a skill that serves them well outside of school.

In addition to formal assignments, students participate in online discussions using an electronic mailing list. Unlike "chat room" conversations, these discussions do not take place in real time. A chat room does exist, however, and many professors use it as a virtual office, allowing students to "visit" during specified hours. Students also may e-mail their professors or peers directly at any time.

Messages posted to the list go to the entire class, including the professor. A significant portion of the students' grades depends upon the quality and frequency of their participation in these online discussions.

To invite additional commentary, students post most of their completed assignments to the list. The class also monitors group work in progress, although the professor evaluates finished projects before posting them. Professors tailor their assignments to each student. They might ask working police officers to defend a policy in place in their organizations, whereas other students would discuss an issue based on their perceptions or beliefs, not on actual experience. The differences in students' backgrounds and the online format, where students remain relatively anonymous, lead to lively discussions.

Part of the ethics curriculum, for example, involves reviewing case studies, about half of which relate directly to law enforcement. What experienced police officers think constitutes ethical behavior versus what the other students believe has led to some no-holds-barred debates.


The CNU ONLINE and MAPSI programs use a point-and-click, Windows-based system. Students need a personal computer(1) with at least 4 megabytes of random access memory (RAM), a modem with a minimum speed of 14,400 bytes per second, communications software, and Internet navigation software. Higher RAM allows students to run multiple applications, for instance, a word-processing program and the online communications software, simultaneously. Likewise, a higher speed modem will move the information across the Internet at a faster rate.

Students access the system by dialing either a local or toll-free number or through a commercial Internet service provider (ISP). Students within the local dialing area have almost unlimited access without an ISP, while the 800 number restricts students to 10 minutes actual online time each day. This has proven adequate for students taking a single class because they need only a short period of time to access the system and download their messages. They then can prepare responses off line, reenter the system, and upload their responses. The 10-minute limit is marginally sufficient for those students taking more than one class or for those who need Internet access for course-related research.

Accordingly, students outside the local dialing area are strongly encouraged to obtain an ISP account with a commercial service. Many commercial Internet providers offer unlimited access for about $25 per month. A grant from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice allows the university to offset this expense with a tuition adjustment for MAPSI students.


Some agencies have allowed their officers to attend MAPSI full time; others, one or two classes a semester. Each semester since the program's inception in the spring of 1996, several students have taken all four courses at once. Employed by the Hampton and Newport News, Virginia, police departments, they found their time commitment to be at least comparable to a normal work schedule.

The remainder of the students, officers from the Virginia Beach, Franklin, James City County, and several additional Virginia police departments, took one MAPSI course while remaining in their full-time duty assignments. These students found the courses, coupled with the Saturday workshops, at least as challenging as any other college courses they had taken. All of the part-time students worked on their own time, although at least one agency is considering allowing students to earn compensatory time while attending MAPSI.

Though all of the students so far have completed the course work at home, some departments may install the necessary software in work stations at their agencies to allow students to complete their course work there. Whether this will prove a suitable work environment remains to be seen, but minimal hardware and software requirements make this option financially viable for many agencies.


Completing either training or educational courses online is a challenging way to earn college credits. To succeed, online students must be highly motivated and disciplined.

Officers who put their lives on the line every day need not be intimidated by classes that require them to express their thoughts online. Through the use of CNU ONLINE and the Mid-Atlantic Police Supervisory Institute, Christopher Newport University is providing officers with the tools they need to survive in the classroom, at the office, and on the street.


Either an Intel-based computer with a 386 microprocessor or a Mac II system will meet the minimum requirements.

A retired police officer, Professor Thomas Dempsey serves as director for criminal justice administration at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Dempsey, Thomas
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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