Distance Learning

Note: In 2011, AOTA identified distance learning as an emerging niche in occupational therapy education. It has since become more mainstream, so newer content appears elsewhere on our site. This page has been retained for historical information. Learn more about the 2011 Emerging Niche series here.

Distance LearningWhy emerging? As demand for occupational therapy practitioners increases, more prospective students are considering occupational therapy as their future career. Some older adults are returning to school and switching careers to occupational therapy, and many of these nontraditional students need the flexibility that distance learning can offer. Whereas there are currently no completely online entry-level occupational therapy programs, nearly 60% of master’s programs and 56% of occupational therapy assistance programs offer some distance education opportunities to students.1

Get Involved! The occupational therapy program staff at Shenandoah University describe their program as “hybrid” because they use some online and some face-to-face instruction, but the online portion reduces the amount of time students need to be on campus. Program director Deborah Marr, ScD, OTR/L, helped launch the program in 2007 as a result of wanting to create a competitive niche for the program. “One should not assume that having any online component means the students spend less time on campus,” says Marr. “To my knowledge, Shenandoah University and University of Minnesota are the only two programs that have at least 60% of our program online.”

Marr says that educators interested in launching hybrid programs need to work at a university that buys into the idea of using technology for education, but is not looking to use this technology to help save money by bringing in more students without increasing faculty. Ultimately, educators need to remember and understand the theories of adult learning and emerging learning theories. “Do not put the technology first,” says Marr. “Put an understanding of how people learn first, and then make decisions on how you can use technology to support those styles of learning.” Marr wants educators to know that teaching an online course takes just as much work and time (if not more) than teaching a traditional course.

Marr has noticed that although students today are comfortable with technology such as e-mail and Facebook, having to post a five paragraph response to a case study is much different. “That’s not the same as putting out a tweet,” she says. “Students have to have good writing skills, good communication skills, be in charge of their own learning, and willing to say ‘I don’t understand this.’” Educators should also not worry about buying and adopting every new technology that emerges. “Every other week there’s something new coming out, but you don’t have to jump on that bandwagon,” says Marr. “Pick technology that is appropriate for your content, your students, and your curriculum design. Put the theory first and then look at the technology—not the other way around.”



  1. American Occupational Therapy Association (2010). Academic programs annual data report: Academic year 2009-2010. Retrieved May 19, 2011, from~/media/A4853DBF1D31426FB047410D3E01C0C1.ashx