Students make progress, stay connected in online continuing education classes

French student Sonja Whipp at the Louvre Pyramid

When Deanna Rymaszewski started her Advanced Dementia Care Specialist Certificate in Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, she had no idea she’d be finishing up her program coursework online. But COVID-19 had other plans.

The pandemic upended many things in 2020, including most in-person classes at UW–Madison. In an effort to keep students moving ahead in their academic programs, many classes, including those offered by Continuing Studies, transitioned quickly to an online format.

Certifying skills in advanced dementia care

Rymaszewski, a clinical educator and social worker with Wisconsin’s Agrace hospice care, had taken online classes as part of her master of social work degree — and for ongoing continuing education requirements — in years past. But she still had some lingering concerns about transitioning to an online format for her certificate coursework.

“I have had issues in the past with online courses where I felt like I couldn’t stay focused due to tech issues,” Rymaszewski says. “Additionally, I have had experiences where I didn’t feel like I could ask questions and participate effectively in a group activity. I learn a lot from Q&A and group activities, so this is important to me.”

Deanna Rymaszewski, Advanced Dementia Care Specialist certificate student, UW–Madison
Deanna Rymaszewski was able to continue her professional certificate program in advanced dementia care thanks to online classes.

Fortunately, Continuing Studies, which has offered online classes for more than a decade, was fully prepared to meet her continuing education needs virtually. Like the in-person class format, online classes are taught by UW–Madison faculty and professional experts who know how to teach, connect and create community for their students — even when that community is in a digital space.

Rymaszewski was pleased to discover that not only was her remaining coursework in aging and long-term care free from technology issues, it was also effectively taught.

“I never felt like technology was a barrier to my participation,” she says of her online classes. “The Q&A was handled really well, and it helped that there was a moderator so that the instructor could focus on teaching. I think this really enhanced my learning. [Having a moderator] is one of those elements that you don’t really notice unless it isn’t there. It makes a huge difference.”

She’s grateful she’s been able to continue her certificate program, which she says will help her onboard and train new staff at Agrace in best practices related to dementia care.

“When the pandemic restrictions were put in place, I was saddened by the reality that I wouldn’t be able to attend the remaining courses in person,” says Rymaszewski. “However, my program put a lot of work into ensuring that in-person courses were well translated to an online learning environment. This allowed me to stay on track for my dementia care certification and stay connected with instructors as well as my classmates. I am beyond thankful.”

Fine-tuning her French

 For Sonja Whipp, the goal of improving her French language skills was inspired by a 2020 trip to France, just before COVID travel restrictions were put in place. She’d studied French in middle and high school and was amazed by how much of what she’d learned in those early years came back to her as she toured France.

Sonja Whipp, UW-Madison Continuing Studies French student
A trip to France inspired Sonja Whipp to revisit her French language education.

“I decided after that trip that I wanted to brush up on my French so that the next time I travel abroad, I can communicate better,” Whipp says.

While she had taken online classes before, the notion of taking an online language class was new to her. But she was up for the opportunity and eager to practice her French conversational skills with other speakers. She says she’s glad she enrolled.

“I had a wonderful experience taking French 2 as an online class,” Whipp says. “I felt like we built a little community online as the weeks went on, and I really looked forward to having this weekly opportunity to learn new words and put our learning into practice through conversation.”

Beyond improving her vocabulary, grammar and conversation skills, Whipp found other things to love about her online class.

“I felt extremely fortunate to have an instructor from France. She taught us so much about the culture and nuances about the language that you can’t get from a book.”

Embracing the online experience

Both Rymaszewski and Whipp say they would encourage others interested in developing their skills and knowledge to consider one of UW–Madison’s online Continuing Studies classes.

“Practicing conversational skills with a group and an experienced instructor is key to improving your knowledge of a language,” notes Whipp. “And it’s really hard to do this on your own outside of a class environment.”

Rymaszewski says she would tell other behavioral health professionals to check out online classes for professional development.

“Do it! It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect with other behavioral health professionals,” she says. “UW–Madison does an amazing job of moderating and supporting online learners.”

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