Distance education marks 35th year: here is what has changed

The year is 1976. Big events include the Bicentennial
of the Declaration of Independence, the launch of Apple
Computers, the landing on Mars by the Viking spacecraft,
the formation of Irish rock band U2 – and the
introduction by Saint Joseph’s College of distance education
for working adults.

GPS 35th anniversary logo

Thirty-five years ago, distance students could sign
up for just one degree, a bachelor’s in professional arts
aimed at licensed health care professionals, many of
whom were nurses. The U.S. Postal Service shuttled
homework back and forth between students and faculty
members. Originally referred to as the External Degree
Program, it required a three-week campus residency
and students had up to six months to complete one
course. Most of the students lived in Maine.

Within just a few years, the program expanded to
include a master’s degree in health administration, and
over the subsequent decades, the college has continued to
add programs. Students can now choose from a total of
21 distinct degrees (15 baccalaureate and 6 graduate)
with numerous specializations, as well as continuing
education courses and 10 certificate programs. Nearly
2,700 students from every state and several foreign countries
are active in a program, and 10,000 alumni have
earned a Saint Joseph’s degree via distance education.

“With Facebook, students can
exchange information about specific
courses, career-related tips, or the
summer program … But the biggest
benefit is it gives the student in
Oregon a way to connect with the
student in Florida. It’s a community.”

- Brent Wooten ’11
Leadership MBA student

Distance education has morphed into online
education for the most part – although the Saint
Joseph’s on-campus summer programs still offer
excellent educational and networking opportunities.
According to the 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning,
enrollment in online courses nationwide rose by
almost 1 million students from a year earlier, bringing
the total to 5.6 million.

As online learning continues to evolve, students
adapt technologically. A recent survey among Saint
Joseph’s online students shows 43 percent of the 1,163
respondents were interested in e-books, and another 15
percent said they were interested after learning e-books
are less expensive. Interest in having course content for
mobile devices was not as strong at 27 percent, but
showed a notable increase from the previous year.

FB logo

Perhaps the largest upward trend was use of Facebook.
The percentage of our online students indicating
weekly or higher use of Facebook
jumped sharply in the past year
from 36 percent in 2009 to 46
percent in late 2010. Recognizing
the opportunity to connect with
online students, and to have online
students connect with each
other, the division has recently
launched a Facebook page (see web address at end of
article). Brent Wooten, marketing director for the online
division and an online student himself, feels this provides
a new way for the college to improve the overall Saint
Joseph’s experience.

“With Facebook, students can exchange information
about specific courses, career-related tips, or the
summer program. We also have a way to quickly communicate
about events at the college, or other important
information they should know,” he says. “But the
biggest benefit is it gives the student in Oregon a way to
connect with the student in Florida. It’s a community.”

Dean of the online division, Lynn Olson, says,
“Nearly all of the online education providers have only
been operating for the past decade or so. It’s incredible
to think that Saint Joseph’s has been serving adults at a
distance for 35 years now. That experience has allowed
us to learn what it takes to help adult students achieve
their educational goals.”

www.facebook.com/saintjosephscollegeonline