November 15, 2006

Distance-learning program benefits Maine students

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Twenty-four of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's newest Salukis have moved from "Down East" to "downstate" without ever leaving home.

The students, all from various locations in Maine, have enrolled in Southern Illinois University Carbondale's first distance-learning graduate program in health education. The 40-credit master's program kicked off in July with a one-week, intensive course taught by David A. Birch, chair of SIUC's Department of Health Education and Recreation.

"We've been working on putting this program together for several years," Birch said.

"It's taken awhile, but we think it's off to a great start. Our students in Maine are happy we are offering this program, are serious students and are very dedicated to completing this degree."

As with weekend MBA programs, this one moves a "cohort" of students through a series of courses taught in non-traditional ways. Students might come together in a central location for seven days straight of lengthy classroom sessions or attend a course that stretches over a series of weekends. Or they might skip going to class all together and instead have the class come to them over the Internet.

But it differs from those MBA programs in that the state of Maine is plunking down $100 per student per course to offset tuition costs.

All the students have jobs in Maine's public schools, and nearly half of them work as school health coordinators — positions funded with Maine's share of the settlement paid by tobacco companies as partial reimbursement for increases in smoking-related expenditures.

"Maine is one of three states in the country actually using the money for health education," Birch said.

"The state wanted to make sure its coordinators and health education teachers in the schools had access to a quality program, and that's why they contacted us to do this. We have a national reputation for graduate work in health education."

Although Birch taught that first course, faculty numbers are such that the department can't spare professors to Maine every semester. In some ways, however, that works to Maine's advantage.

"Because of our connections, we are able to get national leaders in the field to teach for us," Birch said. They include Evelyn E. Ames, who wrote what Birch considers the classic textbook in curriculum development in school health education.

SIUC Professor Mark J. Kittleson and Joyce Ambler, the departmental secretary, serve as the campus liaisons for the Maine students, while Peter C. Doran, emeritus professor of the University of Maine Farmington, is coordinating activities in Maine.

"Everything we have learned about distance education shows us it's good to have an on-site person there," Birch said, noting that Doran was highly familiar with the program, having been the third person to earn a doctoral degree from the department once it started offering graduate education.

This first program "sets the stage" for other opportunities, Birch said.

"We're hoping it plays out so it enables us to form partnerships with the Department of Health, the Department of Education and other schools in Maine. There may be other possibilities in other locations within and outside the U.S. as well. It also gives our faculty members the chance to develop a one-credit, weekend course (as an elective) on something they're passionate about. That's not a bad deal."

Providing additional resources to enhance and/or develop an array of graduate programs at the master's level is among the goals ofSouthern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.