Jenny Marsden, MPT ‘00, fits her studies around her family
and professional responsibilities. Shown here with her
three-year-old son, Owen, she’s working toward a
Master of Physician Assistant Studies degree.
School Without Walls
Taking the university to the student through new distance technology
Technology, consumer demand and faculty flexibility are coming together to provide people everywhere greater educational opportunities to prepare for professional advancement or an occupational shift.
Gone are the days when, to earn a college degree, students had little choice but to leave home, come to campus and attend classes for several years. Today, that classroom is anywhere your computer can operate and the class meeting time is anytime you’re online — for many, who are employed and have families, that often means nights and weekends.
Distance learning brings the university to students, who can access and complete courses of study (that fit into their busy lifestyles) without ever setting foot on campus.
Distance: Not new to North Dakota
With its vast open spaces, North Dakota has a history of grappling with and overcoming distance as a barrier to education. For the past 30 years, for example, through the Laboratory Education for North Dakota (LEND) program, the UND medical school has provided continuing education and training for laboratory personnel working in health care facilities throughout the state and region.
“We make education available to fit their lives,” says Ruth Paur, Ph.D. ’07 (Education), MSMT ‘93, director of the clinical laboratory science program, Grand Forks.
“Part of our mission is to facilitate education in rural areas,” she says. “Our goal is to bring the same educational opportunities to current and potential laboratory health professionals isolated by geography or time-commitment constraints.”
The shortage of clinical laboratory science professionals, estimated at 17 to 22 percent, is “listed at the crisis level nationally,” she notes, and stimulates the growth of distance education.
“Six years ago when we transitioned our master’s degree online, we had 12 students; now we have 70,” says Janna Schill, MSCLS ’04, BSCLS ’01, instructor in pathology, Grand Forks. “Our undergraduate program enrolls 150 students who are also employees at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.”
Distance education is very cost-effective in the training of “obviously talented people” in the health care field, Paur says. “We can repackage the curriculum and structure it differently to customize it” according to individual needs.
“The way we deliver our curriculum is in an asynchronous online format. Each student can access the lectures, discussion boards and assignments on their own schedule 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Often students study in bursts, “jackrabbit learning,” covering a lot of material and listening to teachers’ lectures during late-night and weekend hours.
Students make a significant time commitment to pursue an education via distance learning, Schill maintains. And “they need to have intrinsic motivation to be successful but, for many, this is their only opportunity to continue their education.”
Seeking more patient contact
The motivation for Jenny Marsden, MPT ’00, a student in the Physician Assistant (PA) program who is working with preceptor Wesley Borowski, M.D. ‘91, Fergus Falls, MN, was that she “wanted to do more.”
“I loved being a physical therapist and an advocate for patients,” she says, but “I wanted to get in on surgery, to be more hands-on and more involved in pre- and post-operative care – that really interested me.”
“I like the idea of having an effect on (patients’) overall treatment.”
Since she didn’t consider herself very computer-savvy, Marsden admits to feeling a bit of trepidation about enrolling in a distance education program. But now “it’s almost better” than being in a classroom, she says, “because you can replay (parts of a lecture) if you miss something.”
The PA program is “very good, very intense,” she says. “There’s a lot of material, and it’s a very fast-paced, demanding program” which requires self-discipline and excellent time management.
Distance learning “is challenging but if you can work through your own methods, it’ll get done. You have to be more disciplined; you have a lot more to balance.”
Even though she’s not in a classroom regularly with other students, she says “the advantage of being able to stay where you are (living) outweighs the disadvantage of not seeing people face-to-face.”
Marsden may not have been able to pursue her dream of becoming a physician assistant, if UND didn’t offered this type of program, she speculates. “I wouldn’t have picked up and moved my family. I don’t think I could have pursued it.”
Earning the DPT from a distance
The goal of the Department of Physical Therapy was “to help UND bachelor’s and master’s degree-holders to reach the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) level,” says David Relling, Ph.D. ’03 (Pharmacology, Physiology and Therapeutics), BSPT ’91, associate professor of physical therapy, Grand Forks. This conforms with the Vision 2020 Statement, adopted by the American Physical Therapy Association, advocating the DPT for entry into the profession.
The 35 students pursuing the DPT on-line comprise the second, and final, group scheduled to complete the program since it was initiated in 2004, he says. By December, a total of 85 students from throughout the United States will have completed the online program.
Distance learning “helps students acquire new knowledge and skills in the practice of physical therapy,” Relling says, and “makes them aware of the resources that are available in the PT department, the HEF library and from their peers across the country.”
|The advantage of being able to stay where you are outweighs the disadvantage of seeing people face-to-face.
The PT faculty promotes evidence-based learning, by encouraging students “to incorporate the use of scientific literature, clinical expertise and patient values to optimally evaluate and treat” patients’ conditions, he says.
“You kind of fall into a routine… (and) tend to do what is the most efficient,” says John Andrew, MPT ’98, McMinnville, OR. “I have relied heavily on books for information and gotten out of the habit of using medical search engines to find the most recent information in my field.
“The DPT program has gotten me back in the habit of checking the current research instead of always just performing the same protocol that has worked for years.”
Although initially “skeptical” about distance learning, Andrew is “extremely impressed with the quality and organization of the online courses,” he says. The faculty is “amazing as they respond to all my inquiries quickly – usually within the same day or 24 hours. It’s like having the physical therapy department in my living room even though I live in Oregon!”
Like many others, Andrew says “I don’t think I could have completed this degree any other way… The program does take discipline and a time commitment, but anything worth having does.”
The master’s degree, now required for entry into the occupational therapy field, may be earned completely online by students who hold a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy, according to Jan Stube, Ph.D. ‘00, associate professor of occupational therapy, Grand Forks. The t-MOT (Transitional Master of Occupational Therapy) degree, launched in 2004, enrolls about 20 students who reside throughout the country.
Learning in the “virtual realm takes some adjustment,” she says, but once students do, they say it’s “equally rewarding” as traditional methods.
“Most say that one of the best parts is discussion with classmates (on discussion boards) and the attention, one-on-one, they receive from advisors and faculty members.”
“The faculty and staff of the occupational therapy department made the transition back to student very easy,” says Beryl Olson, MOT ‘06, BSOT ‘96, supervisor of physical medicine at Avera Sacred Heart Hospital in Yankton, SD. “I was impressed at how timely all the information was. I was able to take what I was learning in every class and immediately apply it to my current job duties.”
- Pamela D. Knudson