Point of Beginning

Balancing the Education Equation

January 1, 2002
Discover your alternative education options.



The education formula now includes videotapes and the Internet.

Although there are requirements for licensure in every state, surveying programs don’t exist in every state. The equation is not balanced, thus tilting the scales and allowing the potential for more surveying professionals to be impeded.

There is, however, an option in overcoming this lingering problem: alternative education.

Division of Time

With so many students working full-time or almost full-time, location is often the numerator in the education equation. But it can be less of a concern, thanks to video and the Internet.

Through the enhancements of technology, surveying students old and new have the opportunity to step up, but without having to step out. Videotapes, video streamlining and online education can help a practicing surveyor to attain those required continuing education units (or professional development hours), or help an entering student to attain general course studies—without actually attending a university campus.

Time is a benefit, too, allowing students to work on their own time. Take Catherine DeDecker for instance, project manager at Spalding DeDecker and graduate of Michigan Technological University’s (MTU) distance education course in land surveying.

DeDecker cites a flexible schedule as one of the greatest advantages of her distance education experience, a program in which videotapes are made from resident classes at MTU and sent to a viewing facility. Depending on the number of hours for each course, students view three to four hours of tape once a week, so students can work on their own time.

“You can still make a good living while going to school,” DeDecker says.

The extended university unit of MTU’s school of technology takes care of the logistics involved in the distance programs, including finding local firms to serve as viewing sites that are centrally located for students. For DeDecker’s first quarter, she met others at a local community college. Her firm’s facility in Madison Heights, Mich., later offered Michigan Tech its space as a viewing facility, where about 12 people attended the program.

Vendors also offer their sites.

“Industry vendors come into play by opening their doors to offer their conference rooms for videotaping sessions and by giving tuition assistance,” says Tim Collins, dean of MTU’s school of technology.

“A large percentage graduated through the program, and wrote and passed the test,” says DeDecker, who obtained a Bachelor of Science in Surveying in 1998 from MTU. She believes there are six people who attained their degrees in the last four to five years.

Ten to 12 more students per year are walking away with bachelor’s degrees from East Tennessee State University’s geomatics program offered on the Internet, according to Dr. Marian M. Clark, an instructor of the program. She says there are approximately 60 students overall registered in the geomatics program.

Why Distance Education?

So, what is it about distance education that attracts students? Limited schools offering surveying programs is one reason.

“To become licensed, I had to have a degree in land surveying,” DeDecker says. “The only schools offering it were Ferris State and Michigan Tech. Michigan Tech offered to bring the program to me, so I took it.”

It is true that distance learning differs from the traditional classroom, but there are also several similarities. Web-enabled and video learning allow one to learn at his or her own pace, mostly without travel. Students and faculty can interact by phone or E-mail, or through online chat rooms as they would in the physical classroom.

MTU’s Collins doesn’t see distance learning as any more of a challenge than any other degree program. He says it is hard to evaluate the number of program dropouts, though, because it “depends on how much they already had coming in.” He says some students have taken the required humanities courses or general math courses at a community college before transferring over to MTU, which cuts down on the amount of time they’ll spend at MTU. Plus, students work at their own speed. Some students just take a class at a time, while others work on picking up their general courses at other schools.

The MTU program has been in existence since 1994, with every student taking and passing the land surveying test and becoming licensed if they applied for it. Collins estimates there are 24 students per semester enrolled in the distance education surveying program at MTU, with one or two graduates each year.

The Distance Formula

Students of traditional degree programs, that is on-campus programs, can benefit from face-to-face interaction with other students and faculty—something missing from the distance education option. And what about learning fieldwork and instrument usage? How do remote students accomplish these requirements? The formula has two parts: technology and personal visits—both by the students and the instructors.

Technology, including fax, E-mail and the old-fashioned phone are common ways of communication. They can be used as any student would talk to an instructor in class.

“The instructors are open,” DeDecker says. “You’ve got fax, you’ve got E-mail. The instructors are there whenever you need them.” Collins says two-way video and E-mail lists have also been used by MTU students.

“We’ve made trips down-state to meet with students,” Collins says, adding that there are obvious logistics in making a visit to an out-of-state student. “We have accommodated students in Wisconsin and Minnesota.” MTU often seeks help from a state association, such as the Michigan Society of Professional Surveyors, to assist in this area.

ETSU’s Clark says she tries to make a phone call three or four times to each student per semester. She adds that E-mail is used about once a week and a discussion board is an option for students to exchange information.

To meet labwork and fieldwork requirements, students will have to travel at some point during the semester. Some schools also offer a credit by examination or credit by life’s work program, such as the one offered at MTU. If a student’s job matches what the courses at MTU cover, it can be an option to get credit for a class or a portion of a class.

“One assurance is that they are competent in that course to go to the next course,” Collins says. “We will work with them, just as we would mentor any on-campus student.”

DeDecker says most of her fieldwork was covered by her work experience. There was also some labwork done on weekends. To pass the “tree class” as DeDecker calls it (referring to dendrology), students are required to attend a class for three eight-hour Saturday sessions.

Students in the distance education program at Old Dominion University in Virginia are also required to complete three, eight-hour fieldwork sessions. Joseph W. Betit, PLS, surveying coordinator at ODU, says the students get to see and use state-of-the-art equipment provided by vendors.

“They [the vendors] love it because they get to meet the end users,” Betit says. “They don’t have to advertise; their name is on the equipment.”

At East Tennessee State University, classroom, laboratory and outdoor field space is provided in and around the campus. Total stations, first-order theodolites, precise levels, GPS units, photogrammetric stereoplotters and Pentium computers are all available for students to experience and use. Surveying and mapping software from several companies has been either donated or purchased at educational discounts through special vendor offers. A 20-station second-order network of stations covers the main campus.

For ETSU students, practical field experience work is sometimes available on a part-time basis with local surveying, mapping and engineering firms.

Distance Downfalls

Many administrators of distance education programs echo the fact that the cost of the courses is more than on-campus students pay. This is due in part because, as Collins says, the students are essentially paying for the program. He estimates that 45 tapes a week are mailed out to remote students; thus, most of this cost is put on the student.

In some states there lies the problem of confirming if a state board of registration approves of certain classes for credit. Most college administrators will work with students to evaluate this. Students should know what standards are expected of them.

Equation Resolution

What are the greatest advantages of distance education?

“What I had hoped for,” Betit says. “The Holy Grail for surveying was distance education.”

“In talking to some of the first graduates, I’m really impressed,” Collins says. “Some of them are mothers. They have made arrangements with their families for quiet time on a Saturday so they can study.”

Collins oversees two different programs in his administrator position. “I’m really most fond of the surveying program,” he says. “We’re offering this course to individuals who have the want to do it. There are two different sets of motivation there. It’s most rewarding to see the surveyors come to me.”

Hopefully, more students will be making their way to Collins, Clark, Betit and other administrators of distance education programs.

Editor's Note: Find out about other distance education courses by viewing the 2001 College Survey online at www.pobonline.com, Product Surveys.