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Going the distance

At any given time, 700 distance education students are enrolled in nine master’s degree programs and seven certificate programs; individual courses are also available.

For working professionals scattered around the world, continuing education can be a challenge. Work opportunities take people to new cities, countries, and continents. And if you’re an active service military member like Frank Price ’12G, your work can take you to the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Despite the technical obstacles he faces being stationed on the USS George Washington CVN 73, an aircraft carrier home-ported in Yokosuka, Japan, Price is working toward a master’s degree in chemistry. He has the Lehigh University Office of Distance Education to thank for making the process easier.

“Lehigh University’s distance education office and associated class professors worked exceptionally well around my difficult schedule,” says Price, who calls the program his most intellectually rewarding and challenging experience.

Now in its 20th year, the Office of Distance Education is a trendsetter in the field. At any given time, 700 students are enrolled in nine master’s degree programs and seven certificate programs; individual courses are also available.

The office employs a great deal of cutting edge technology, including the Classroom LIVE platform, allowing distance students to participate in courses real time from around the world via the internet. Students can watch a live feed of a lecture on campus, ask their professors questions through a microphone, and participate in class discussions.

In addition, professors provide lecture material, video and coursework online through the university’s course management system, Course Site. 

A deliberate and intentional growth model

The program has evolved and grown greatly over the past two decades.

“We started off with a full master’s in chemistry that could be done entirely by distance; we used a satellite broadcast platform,” recalls Peg Portz, director of distance education and summer sessions. “The first semester, January of 1992, we had, I believe, 27 students from seven participating companies taking classes in chemistry.”

Twenty years ago, the office benefitted greatly from a partnership with the National Technological University (NTU), which shared corporate partners and helped Lehigh earn a grant to install a satellite network through the United States Department of Commerce.

Ned Heindel, the Howard S. Bunn Professor of Chemistry, who has worked with distance education at Lehigh from the start, says: “An additional platform utilized is asynchronous. We create the lectures here, put them on the web, and students watch them at their leisure at home. That’s evolved from initially when we started.”

The growth model is very deliberate and intentional: Instead of offering an exceedingly large number of learning opportunities, it focuses on developing programs that give students around the world the same experience as those on campus.

“Many academic institutions are rolling out new distance learning programs or certificates each week”, says Lisa Moughan, the office’s marketing and recruitment leader. “We’re niche-based, and we think that says a lot for what we have to offer.”

To Portz and Moughan, distance education at Lehigh prides itself on preserving the university’s tradition of offering a quality academic experience. The two go to great lengths to ensure that the quality of students reflects Lehigh’s longstanding reputation for cultivating great minds.

Distance education at Lehigh has several success stories to its credit. Sally Macaluso went on to become a senior director in global procurement at Merck, while Marilyn Whittemore, who was also the program’s first Ph. D, is a senior synthesis chemist at Buckman in Memphis, Tenn.

“Our office mirrors the campus admission policy; it’s an extension of the Lehigh brand,” Moughan says. “At the end, the distance student receives the same degree as our campus student would receive. There’s nothing that differentiates, so it’s the research base, the renowned faculty, and all of the strength and quality that one would think from a brick and mortar school.”

Photo by Douglas Benedict

Story by Karl Brisseaux '11

Posted on Friday, June 08, 2012

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