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On-line master's program first of its kind

By Sandy Broughton

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 35 - July 17, 1997

As one of California's top health-and-physical-education teachers, Nancy Hennefer was anxious to continue her education in the field. She had long wanted to earn her master's degree at Virginia Tech, but because of the geographic distance, the possibility seemed remote. Add to that her full-time teaching job, coaching responsibilities, and family obligations, and graduate education at Tech seemed impossible.
Or was it?
This summer Hennefer and 24 other health-and-physical-education teachers from a variety of geographic locations will start a unique two-year master's-degree program that utilizes electronic and distance-learning technologies. The group began a two-week orientation meeting on campus beginning July 7 for. After that, classes, lectures, projects, discussions, and assessments will be conducted on line. Students will complete the entire course of study as a group. Next year, the group will return to Tech for another two weeks, then complete the coursework in their own hometowns. At the end of two years, each student will have earned an M.S. in health and physical education.
"This new way of structuring our master's-degree program allows us to reach out to people who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to attend Virginia Tech," said George Graham, the professor of health and physical education who is organizing the program. The program is the first of its kind at Tech and the first in the nation in the field of health and physical education.
Graham admits that the program is somewhat experimental, and that he worries about sacrificing the interaction that is vital to the teaching-and-learning process. "I would be reluctant to do an entire master's program like this without having some face-to-face meeting," says Graham, "but at least this two-week orientation will give the students and professors a chance to meet one another and establish a context for the coursework, which seems somewhat better than doing an entire program on line."
During their two weeks at Tech, the students will be introduced to the technology skills they will need to participate in the on-line course. They will meet each faculty member who will teach them during the year, and discuss with them each course that will be taught. They will also receive all the printed materials--course syllabus, textbooks, readings--they will use throughout the year.
"This is a combination of the old and the new, in terms of teaching techniques," Graham said. "It provides a comfort zone for the students and the faculty members by providing at least a minimum of personal contact. This is clearly an experimental program for us. We will evaluate it very carefully, and listen closely to the feedback of the students."
In addition to making Tech's graduate courses available to a wider audience, the on-line master's program gives Graham a chance to try a new approach to teaching. He calls it "project-based learning" because the participants will actually use their own health-and-physical-education programs to learn about teaching techniques, assessment methods, and curriculum design. "Students will complete a series of related action research projects designed to encourage them to develop a deeper understanding of both their teaching and the structure and effectiveness of their programs," Graham said.
One of the projects has participants videotaping themselves as they teach, then conducting a thorough analysis of their teaching. Another project has participants evaluating their health-and-physical-education programs and then designing or redesigning their curriculum. "It is almost as though their classrooms become their `labs' during this program," Graham said.
The program is not simply the same master's program Tech has offered previously delivered via computer. The coursework itself has been altered to make the best use of new technologies. The final project, for example, is an electronic portfolio in which participants will include their best accomplishments. The portfolios will be posted on line so that the entire group has access to them. Since the participants are from various states and that include different time zones, Graham says they will depend on listservs and other asynchronous means of discussion rather than live chat rooms.
The group includes health-and-physical-education students from North Dakota, California, New York, Kentucky, and Virginia. The group will complete the two-year program as a cohort. No new students will be admitted once the program begins. "This allows the students to develop a common learning experience. We can interweave the materials because we know that each participant has a common base of knowledge, and we are able to build on previous experiences," Graham says. "No doubt the faculty members involved in the program will be learning right along with the students about this new way of teaching. It will be interesting to see if, based on the evaluations, we will continue the program in future years."