Distancing from the competition
Student support services set UTA distance education program apart
by Jim Patterson
Janelle Quintans thought she was taking the easy way out when she signed up for distance education courses at UTA. She's happy she was wrong.
"I am able to learn so much from my peers in distance education classes because so many of them are seasoned educators. I also feel like my peers can gain from my contributions as a new teacher."
education graduate student Janelle Quintans
Quintans, who is pursuing her master's degree in education, is among a growing number of UTA students taking the online route. She has already completed eight courses over the Internet. Through UTA's Center for Distance Education, students can take a variety of courses that wayÑfrom a required first-year course to the entire MBA online program.
Established in 1997, the center ranks as one of the nation's trend-setters and has won several awards for its courses and programs.
"Last year, we were named to the Best in the Nation list by U.S. News & World Report for three of our online degrees," said Pete Smith, director of distance education at UTA. "For the past several years, a number of our programs have won national awards. The online MBA, which is a consortium of several campuses, was actually ranked the No. 1 online MBA in the nation.
"We're the No. 1 Internet campus within the U.T. System. Because U.T. Austin has had somewhat of a different focus, it has been very nice for us at U.T. Arlington to be recognized."
Flexibility with service
Distance education courses use the traditional admission process and semester time frame, but students can work at their own pace as long as they finish by the end of the semester.
"What we stress is not the distance in distance education, but the flexibility," Dr. Smith said. "We know that folks have busy lives, family commitments and so on. What we try to do is bring them customization and flexibility so they can do this on their own time and at their own pace."
Grant Hahn, a drama teacher at Jackson Middle School in Grand Prairie, completed his teacher certification by taking his final UTA course through the Internet. "The biggest help to me was being able to complete the work at my own pace, but it was still very challenging," he said.
Ann Accas, speech teacher and forensics coach at Grapevine High School, took Reading 5326 via the Internet. "I liked the flexibility of getting online at any hour, but I'm not sure online classes are for everyone. You have to be self-motivated. There are deadlines just like in any other class."
The Center for Distance Education employs staff dedicated to supporting distance education and Internet students. It's this service aspect, Dr. Smith said, that sets UTA apart.
"So many schools now have online courses," he said. "But I think UTA is a step ahead, from the first telephone call to the admissions process to registration to technical support in case you have trouble along the way. We provide the total online experience."
Suzanne Beckett heads the support department, which works to meet the special needs of distance education students. "We provide phone and e-mail support for both faculty and students, answering questions ranging from technical aspects of the program to, 'How do I pay my fees?' "
UTA and the U.T. System offer a series of online agreements. UTA is the only campus that offers the master of education degree in curriculum and instruction. The master of science degrees in electrical engineering and computer science are offered at UTA and U.T. Dallas. UTA participates in the U.T. System MBA online program and is the lead campus in the system's criminology and criminal justice online bachelor's degree. In all, UTA offers 10 degrees that can be completed entirely online.
Dr. Michael Moore, UTA assistant vice president for academic affairs and professor of political science, is teaching his 1,000th distance education student this fall.
"Perhaps the greatest challenge in my distance education courses is that the student is dealing with different material on any given day since the course is self-paced," Dr. Moore said. "Students are accessing the course 24 hours a day, and they will e-mail the instructor at all hours of the day and come to expect a response at all hours of the day. You find yourself checking your e-mail all the time.
"We are, in many ways, providing education to folks who could not otherwise work on their college degree. That is very important and very satisfying. I've had students in Austin, El Paso, Germany, Korea and a Marine stationed on a ship."
According to UTA enrollment figures, 1,022 students were taking courses via the Internet in fall 2001. That figure rose to 1,406 in the past spring semester.
Muriel Oaks, dean of extended university services at Washington State University, was particularly impressed with the UTA and U.T. System program.
"There are institutions and consortia across the country that are now backing out of their distance education activities because they couldn't make a go of it," Dr. Oaks said. "The fact that the U.T. Arlington distance education enrollments are on a significant upswing is proof that they are doing things the right way."
The Internet is just one of the ways that the Center for Distance Education is growing. Courses are also available through video-conferencing classes, two-way video/audio classes and taped classes.
"The phrase we have around here is 'e-everything,' " Dr.
Smith said. "We try to make everything available in digital format.
That's our goal, e-everything."