Distance Learning

By Blotzer, Michael J. | Occupational Hazards, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Distance Learning


Blotzer, Michael J., Occupational Hazards


Keep up with the changing times by using technology to bring education as close as your personal computer.

The work environment is not static; it changes rapidly. The occupational health and safety field must change just as quickly to keep up. In the last 20 years alone, health and safety professionals have responded to new challenges, such as building-related illnesses, bloodborne pathogens and emergent diseases. We've applied our art to new industries, like integrated circuit manufacturing and biotechnology, and devoted increased energies to ergonomics, lead-based paint and other long-standing concerns.

To keep pace, we continually adopt new technology to develop new tools for identifying, evaluating and controlling occupational hazards. Advances in mathematical modeling and computers, real-time monitoring for hazardous chemicals, medical surveillance and control technologies enable us to provide better worker protection.

This constant change places increased educational demands on health and safety professionals. While the continuing education industry provides a dazzling array of seminars and short courses, even one-day training events can be impossible to attend due to work demands, personal situations and travel budgets.

Education is more than professional short courses. In many cases, career goals compel midcareer professionals to seek new or advanced degrees. Unfortunately, if the desired degree is not available locally, the career goal remains simply a dream.

What can you do when the education you need isn't available locally? You could try distance learning.

Distance learning is any learning environment where the teacher is physically separated from the student and information transfer occurs via some communications medium. Distance learning media cover a range of technologies, including paper-and-pencil correspondence courses, videotape, video teleconferencing and Internet-based classes.

The quality of the student-teacher relationship varies depending upon the medium used. Correspondence classes, videotape instruction and most Web-based classes provide for little or no teacher-student interaction. Video teleconferencing, on the other hand, lets students and teachers interact almost at a classroom level.

While video teleconferencing classes provide excellent student teacher interaction, existing technology requirements limit class availability to teleconferencing centers. Fortunately, the same technology that enables personal computer users to communicate over the Internet with inexpensive cameras and microphones can bring interactive distance learning to any Internetworked personal computer.

Tulane University Distance Learning

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending interactive Internet-based classes offered by the Center for Applied Environmental Public Health (CAEPH) at Tulane University. The classes, part of its master's degree program in occupational health and safety management, had their roots in a video teleconference industrial hygiene program Tulane provided for the Department of Energy at its Hanford site in Richland, Wash.

According to Dr. Susie Allen, clinical assistant professor at Tulane and manager of the distance learning program, a needs assessment conducted as part of the Hanford program found demand for programs aimed toward midcareer health and safety professionals. The assessment also indicated that potential students were dispersed - pointing to distance learning as an obvious tool to reach the target audience.

"Interactivity is an essential element for quality distance learning programs," Allen said. "Kevin Johnson, our technical guru, proposed a system that would allow us to get a class of students online simultaneously and provide for two-way audio and graphics. The current bandwidth capability of the Internet system does not allow real-time video. However, we felt that we would not lose much academically by the student not being able to see the professor's 'talking head.

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