[UTA Magazine]


Learning from afar
Student in Micronesia capitalizes on distance education offerings

Erik Steffen is taking distance education to the extreme.

He’s working on a master’s degree in education from Micronesia, a string of 600 islands in the South Pacific several hundred miles north of Australia — and more than 6,000 miles from Arlington.

Distance education student Erik Steffen
Though he's more than 6,000 miles from campus, student Erik Steffen is pursuing a master's degree in education. Steffen, who teaches English as a second language at the College of Micronesia, was among the nearly 1,700 students taking Internet courses last fall. UTA offers more than 60 classes online.

“I chose UTA because it is the only school that offers ESL,” said Steffen, who teaches English as a second language at the College of Micronesia. “And with UTA, I can do everything online. Some schools want you to spend a week or even a summer on campus.”

Steffen grew up in Florida and earned his bachelor’s degree in English at Emory College in Atlanta. After graduation, he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Micronesia to help revitalize the library on the small island of Mwoakilloa.

After two years there, he returned to the United States to visit family and friends. Before taking a teaching job in Japan, he decided to visit Micronesia again — and never left.

“I found out about a job opening at the college and applied for it,” he said. “Without a master’s degree, I am at the low end of the salary scale, so I am attempting to change that.”

The Federated States of Micronesia are much like Puerto Rico in that they are not under U.S. control but still receive many benefits from the American government, including approximately $80 million in federal aid, military protection and simple immigration.

The College of Micronesia is on the island of Pohnpei, one of the four federated states. Pohnpei has a population of 30,000 and is much more developed than Mwoakilloa.

“There are 17 different languages and dialects spread across Micronesia,” Steffen said. “Pohnpeian is the mother language, but interestingly, English is the language of the government. Some people speak English very well, and most people here have basic English skills.”

Steffen took two courses through UTA’s Center for Distance Education last fall and three this spring. He hopes to complete his degree next year.

“The courses this spring were more time-consuming than the first semester because they were more discussion-based. But I teach classes only on Tuesday and Thursday, so that frees me up for online work the rest of the week.”

His spring schedule included two reading courses taught by Nancy Hadaway and one education course with Jeannine Hirtle.

“I think Erik and all our students who teach in a nontraditional environment bring a rich perspective to share with many of our students who have taught in the same district all their professional lives,” said Dr. Hadaway, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction.

Dr. Hirtle, also an associate professor of curriculum and instruction, noted that several students from outside the country are enrolled in her Advanced Instructional Strategies course.

“We are very fortunate to have an extremely culturally diverse class in terms of location of students,” said Hirtle, who recently received the 2002-03 UTA President’s Award for Excellence in Distance Education Teaching. “We have two teaching in Japan, one in Italy and one who was in Turkey. At last count, we had students from 11 different states.”

UTA offers more than 60 courses online. According to Pam Haws, assistant vice president and director of Institutional Research and Planning, nearly 1,700 students enrolled in Internet courses in fall 2002.

The School of Education’s master of education offering was one of three online graduate programs named among the best in the nation last year by U.S. News & World Report in its “Best of the Online Graduate Programs” list. The others were the College of Business Administration’s M.B.A. and the College of Engineering’s graduate program.

“UTA participates in 10 online degree or degree completion programs,” noted Pete Smith, director of the Center for Distance Education. “That allows students from great distances to be able to complete their degrees through the Internet from start to finish.”

That’s exactly what appealed to Steffen, who wanted to earn his degree without leaving Micronesia.

“I get just about everything I need here,” he said. “Sometimes it just takes longer or costs more. For instance, a bag of Fritos may cost $5. But the people are very friendly here, and I really enjoy it.”

For more information on UTA’s Center for Distance Education, call 817-272-5727 or visit http://distance.uta.edu.

– Jim Patterson

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