- This is an article from the Texas Tech newspaper.
Owen Roberts is doing the grinding work graduate students often do. The agricultural communications instructor daily plies away the study hours aimed at getting his doctor of education degree in agricultural education through a joint program offered by Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University. His time is like that of most mid-career students these days. He squeezes in classes and study sessions between work and family life. The difference in Roberts’ case is that rather being located in the Lone Star state, he is more than 1,500 miles away at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. “Even though I’m here, I feel that I’m just as in touch as my fellow students in Texas,” Roberts said. To advance in his career Roberts was accepted into a new distance education program, informally known as “Doc@Distance” some six months ago. Since then he’s taken five classes primarily using the Internet and video conferencing from classrooms originating far to the south in Lubbock and College Station. “This has just been a fantastic experience for me,” he said. “I honestly don’t know how I would do this degree if it wasn’t available by distance. This is a very applied doctorate, and I use it daily in my job here.” Going to Class from Your Own Home Across the nation, universities are broadening their distance education offerings. Sixty-three percent of schools offering undergraduate face-to-face courses also offer courses online. For graduate programs, that number rises to 65 percent. “This particular distance education program was developed in an effort to take the university out to a specific group of people working in agriculture,” said Matt Baker, chairman of Texas Tech’s Department of Agricultural Education and Communications. “There was a real need for mid-career professionals who wanted doctoral degrees, but were place bound.” But rolling out a distance education program as complex as Doc@Distance wasn’t a quick or simple task.The initiative required high levels of coordination and planning, as well as additional equipment expenditures. Planning began in 1998, but it was another two years before for the program was approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. iPod Portable electronic tools such as iPods help instructors to teach classes far from campus. Baker pointed out that the program was designed as truly a joint effort, half the credits are delivered by Texas A&M and half from Texas Tech. In fact, even the diploma bears the emblems of both universities, he said. The joint graduate faculty of 26 members includes eight professors, seven associate professors and 11 assistant professors, along with selected supporting committee members and a support staff. “We meet as a faculty and decide things as a faculty,” Baker said. “We even refer to our location as either ‘campus east’ or ‘campus west.’ We save any rivalry between the two universities for the football teams.” Flexible by Design Distance education isn’t a new concept, but the process is continuing to evolve and improve. Increased faculty and student access to high-speed Internet connections allows schools to use web-based tools and portable tools such as iPods to teach classes far from campus. Distance students can take courses face-to-face at off-campus sites, using interactive video-conferencing with professors in different places, audiotape, videotape, CD-ROM, and print-based work. E-mail, threaded discussions, chat rooms, and traditional methods of communication also allow students to correspond with instructors and other classmates. “Most of our distant students are mid-career professionals and appreciate the flexibility and freedom that technology provides them for learning opportunities,” said Chad Davis, an assistant professor in Texas Tech’s Department of Agricultural Education and Communications. “In some cases, our students actually prefer distance learning over traditional teaching.” Text Chad Davis, an assistant professor in Texas Tech University’s Department of Agricultural Education and Communications, talks to students spread across the nation. Since the program began, there have been three Doc@Distance classes, ranging in size from 13 to 20 students. Initially, all the students were from Texas, but more recently the program has moved outward to a national, and in Roberts’ case, international audience. “It’s a very competitive process,” said Kim Dooley, associate department head at Texas A&M’s Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications. “We actually get inquiries from around the world, but for now the program is only offered in English.” To enter the Doc@Distance program applicants must apply to both universities, provide a portfolio of work examples, and supply letters of recommendation, as well as a letter of support from their employer. This is followed by a pre-screening interview process that tests both the student and their communications technology. Following acceptance into the program, the students are on track to finish their doctorate in four years. “But with research that can vary,” Dooley said. Asked if the programs and courses offered through distance learning technologies are the same quality as those offered on campus, Cynthia McKenney, associate director of Texas Tech’s Teaching, Learning and Technology Center, pointed out that Texas Tech is actively participating in Quality Matters, a nationally recognized peer review process designed to provide an inter-institutional quality assurance program for online courses. “All programs and courses meet the rigorous standards of on-campus courses,” she said. “In fact, the majority of professors teaching distance learning courses teach the same courses on campus.” In addition to the doctor of education in agricultural education, Texas Tech’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources offers several other degree programs via distance education, including:
- Bachelor of Science in Horticulture
- Master of Science in Horticulture
- Master of Science in Crop Science
- Master of Agriculture
- Master of Science in Agricultural Education