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Learning from a distance

The Internet makes an RIT education available anywhere, anytime, anyplace

Time was when classroom technology meant blackboards, overhead projectors and mimeograph machines. At the turn of this new century, teaching tools include the World Wide Web, e-mail, CDs, video, chatrooms, instant messaging, and conference calls.

(above) Helen Pilittere found a path to a new career through distance learning. (below) For Edward Shansala, distance learning is intellectually stimulating and family friendly.

Distance learning programs at RIT use all these technologies and more, creating a virtual campus that is growing exponentially, while serving as a benchmark for other such programs across the country.

"Online asynchronous learning," says Karen Vignare, director of business development for RIT's Online Learning Initiatives program, "that's what we offer at RIT. It gives the students the convenience of taking courses anytime, anywhere and anyplace, following our academic calendar."

Distance learning at RIT -- now one of the largest the nation -- began in 1978 as a small piece of the continuing education program. Lectures were offered on WXXI-TV, and exams took place on campus. The program adapted to new media, with lectures offered on cable television, some classes offered to industry via closed-circuit television, papers and class notes sent by snail mail or fax machines. In 1990, RIT became the one of the first 15 institutions to offer a full degree through a distance learning program.

"RIT has always specialized in using the consumer technology of the day. Today, that means computers and the Web," says Chrstine Geith, director of e-learning inititives. "Almost everyone has access either at work or at home, and we've just been growing and growing." Now RIT has 6,500 enrollments in distance learning programs, with 275 courses available, eight complete graduate degrees, three graduate certificates, five undergraduate degrees and 16 certificates available online.

"People are searching for alternative ways to study at RIT," says Geith. "Awareness of our online option is increasing," One result: Last year saw close to a 25 percent growth in RIT's distance learning enrollments.

"Flexibility in our personal lives is an important thing to have these days," says Debra DeMay, Preferred Care. "Distance learning is a way for us to accomplish our career goals and balance our work and family initiatives."
Distance learning gave Helen Pilittere of Irondequoit the option of working full-time and going to school full-time. After being laid off an administrative job at Kodak, she faced an uncertain future. "I had no real marketable skills," she says. But she had pressing family responsibilities: Her husband is disabled, and her two sons were entering college. While working two jobs to make ends meet, she began a bachelor's degree program in quality management via Distance Learning. She got her degree in 1999.

Meanwhile, Pilittere landed a job with Global Crossing, an international telecommunications company, where she now works as a capacity planning analyst. So, she's now enrolled in RIT's telecommunications diploma program -- once again taking courses online.

"It turns out distance learning was a good way for me to learn," she says. She could fit the coursework into her schedule, listen to lectures more than once if she needed to, and, most important, "We had really excellent professors, who were willing to help." Her efforts paid off in a 4.0 grade point average -- and a new career.

"Students log in when it's convenient within the due dates of the course," says Geith. "They can have a dialogue with a faculty member and with other students. We are finding our students put a high priority on that dialogue."

Edward Shansala agrees. Director of quality improvement and educational enhancement for the Finger Lakes Visiting Nurse Service, he completed a master's degree in health systems administration from RIT last May via distance learning. "The program appealed to me," says Shansala, who lives in Phelps, N.Y. "I'm a lifelong-learner type and, unlike traditional programs, intellectual stimulation is only a log-on away with online study."

Plus, says the father of a precocious 4-year-old, "Distance learning is more family-friendly."

Distance learning employs the same high-quality faculty as the traditional RIT programs. Shansala, who has a bachelor's degree from RIT in chemistry and biotechnology as well as a master's in education from the University of Rochester, says, "Course content has been relevant in spite of the dramatic changes in the health-care market. I believe this is indicative of the top-flight faculty who have a passion and capacity to provide the highest quality educational experience possible."

RIT faculty are in a unique position to create curricula that respond well to the online market, Geith explains. RIT's programs are in high demand worldwide. Faculty are experienced and have spent time thinking carefully about the learning objectives of their courses and how best to teach them to diverse audiences.

"Because of the needs of the students at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (one of RIT's seven colleges) and our easy access to technology, faculty spend time finding new ways to present material," Geith says. "To teach well online, you have to think about what you currently are doing, then think about how to do it effectively in an online environment."

RIT's James Mallory, for example, who teaches applied computer technology at NTID, says, "The problem with teaching computer programming is that there is so much going on simultaneously. You have to deal with input, output, the actual code, memory allocation, how the program executes. It's difficult to follow all that. So I tried to figure out a way I could show all this at the same time." Mallory combined closed-captioning, sign language, graphics, cartoon graphics, and executable simulation files to his videotaped instructions that students can view at home at their convenience.

"Faculty like Jim Mallory are eager to produce the best distance-learning experiences for their students," says David Cronister, director of the Educational Technology Center. The center helps faculty incorporate the various technologies into their curricula.

Distance learning also appeals to international students. According to Glenn Shive, past director of the Institute of International Education's office in Hong Kong and author of articles and a forthcoming book on distance learning, international distance learning is "a new gold rush."

"Obtaining visas is complicated and often students must prove they have access to enough cash and/or capital to support their entire stay in the United States," says Karen Vignare. "It is important to understand that many international students would like to be in the United States, but we think those students also are interested in distance learning and time-shortened experiences in the United States.

RIT graduate student Oz Yakuphanogullarind, a native of Turkey, lives in Switzerland and works as a telecommunications manager for an international company. He opted for RIT for his information technology studies, even though he could attend schools in Switzerland. "I wanted to study at an American university because they are internationally well known and well accepted," he says. After researching online programs, "I found several through some searching on the Internet. One of them was RIT and it was the most interesting to me."

Employers are pleased with RIT's programs -- if workers can attend school online, they spend less time away from work. "Overall I was very pleased with RIT. This is a good way for employees in a company as far flung as Exxon Mobil Corp. to keep certifications current and advance their careers. Eventually we'd like to offer a full curriculum of these courses to all of our employees on a worldwide basis," says Neil Ryan, Exxon Mobil senior environmental health and safety advisor.

Adds Debra DeMay, director of human resources, Preferred Care, a Rochester-area health-care organization. "We all know that flexibility in our personal lives is an important thing to have these days. Distance learning is a way in which we can accomplish our career goals and balance our work and family initiatives. We certainly, as a company, are completely supportive of whatever mechanism people use to accomplish their educational objectives. Distance learning at RIT is one way to help people get an education who could not otherwise go on a campus to take classes."