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Delivering the classroom to the student

By Vicki Sanders

While pursuing her master's through distance learning, Baker interned last fall at the National Institute for Standards and Technology in Washington, D.C., investigating the causes of the collapse of the World Trade Center Building 5.

Since 1979, when a group of management professors commandeered storage space in Higgins Labs and set up a rudimentary video studio, launching WPI's first distance learning course, off-campus educational opportunities have proliferated. Technological advances and workplace globalization have made distance study more convenient and desirable: 15 percent of graduate credit hours at WPI are now taken at a distance, double the enrollment of five years ago. To off-campus students, the benefit is immense.

Take, for example, Elisa Baker '02, a master's candidate in fire protection engineering. Normally, Baker would have had to suspend her course work for a year. Through WPI's Advanced Distance Learning Network (ADLN), she enrolled in FPE 570, Building Fire Safety, and completed the course without setting foot in the classroom.

"I liked the flexibility to attend a lecture whenever it was convenient," says Baker, who'd pop the weekly videotaped lectures into her home VCR.

The tapes arrived by mail; course materials and exchanges among students and the professor were handled online.

For a group assignment, Baker teamed up with distance learners in Washington, Illinois and Massachusetts.

WPI offers three master's degrees through distance learning--in business administration, fire protection engineering and environmental engineering--and several graduate certificates. Distance students take the same classes as on-campus participants. "That sets us apart from many colleges," says Pam Shelley, assistant director of ADLN.

"We are not hiring outside people to teach distance learning courses. We are not watering down the WPI degree at all."

Baker was so satisfied with her experience, she's considering taking another class by distance when she returns to campus. "You can watch lectures in the evening, rewind, ask questions of the professor, and talk to other students by e-mail," she says.

"It's just so incredibly convenient."

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