By Matt Camara
May 15, 2013

NEW BEDFORD — When Bristol Community College approached occupational therapist Lynda Levesque about supervising some of its e-learning health care students during their clinical exercises, she was skeptical.

“Just any health program that’s e-learning, it’s hard to imagine that can be done,” Levesque said.

But the students Levesque got were from the college’s eHealth occupational therapy assistant program, a “hybrid” program that features lectures and learning materials posted online paired with weekly face-to-face sessions for practical exercises. The program debuted in 2011, allowing the college to double its intake of OTA students from 20 to 40 by shifting students to the web and out of congested lab and classroom space.

Occupational therapy is a medical field that seeks to help people recover from injuries. Unlike regular physical therapy, however, occupational therapy takes into account mental and emotional health to get patients back on track to living how they want.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists occupational therapy assistants as having a “higher than average” growth outlook. The average OTA was paid $47,490 annually in 2010.

The associate degree e-Health program’s first graduates will be officially pinned Tuesday in a ceremony at the college, with 14 students capping off two years of disciplined self-study and a semester packed with intense clinical rotations at local health care facilities.

And while a good portion of the work might have been done from their living rooms, students said it was far from a cake walk.

“It isn’t any easier, the material isn’t any less difficult. It’s just more convenient,” said Karen Woodcock, 43, who is graduating summa cum laude at the semester’s end. Woodcock, who went into the program after work and family commitments put nursing school on hold, said she typically worked 20 hours per week on her online courses not counting the weekly clinical meetings on campus in New Bedford.

“I think they end up spending more time on their schoolwork, but they’re doing it from home at their computer,” said Johanna Duponte, assistant chair for the occupational therapy assistant program.

College officials set out to create the hybrid program in response to employer demand and a bottle-necked admissions process that saw 20 students fighting over 200 OTA seats.

What followed was a hectic two years as the college worked to consolidate both the traditional and hybrid programs at the New Bedford campus. The face-to-face version was still at the main Fall River campus, forcing faculty to truck unwieldy, expensive medical equipment back and forth weekly; meanwhile, administrators scrambled to meet accreditation requirements.

And, to top it off, the accreditors were skeptical of the program’s online lectures, too, Duponte said.

The Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education came around, however, recognizing the hybrid program last December — allowing students to work in the field at clinical placements.

“They realized it’s basically the same program that’s been accredited all along,” Duponte said, pointing to both program’s identical number of laboratory hours.

As for Levesque, her skepticism passed after eight weeks with an e-Health OTA student in her office, she said.

“Yes. I must admit I was a little concerned regarding an E-learning program,” she wrote on a student’s performance evaluation after the clinical. “I should have realized BCC would do it properly.”

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