Flexible. Convenient. Stimulating. Interactive. Learner-centered. These are the words many students use to describe an ideal program in allied dental education. More and more these days, educators are able to provide such programs through the use of distance learning. A study by Dr. Ellen Grimes published in the October 2002 Journal of Dental Education reported that 22 percent of dental hygiene programs responding to the survey offered distance education, with an additional 13 percent planning to do so in the future. Clearly, those numbers are growing, as both faculty and students become proponents of this efficient and effective means of delivering courses.
Distance education is defined by Dr. Grimes as “education delivered to learners at an alternative site from the presenting institution.” Today most distance education uses the Internet to deliver course content, often including video, as well as providing interactivity among students and faculty through email, computer conferencing, chat rooms, and/or desktop videoconferencing.
Many times, these programs make it possible for students to advance their education who would not be able to otherwise. When the first class of the East Tennessee State University Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene (BSDH) program began in August 2001 with one of two meetings on campus, its faculty decided to ask the 22 students to tell their stories. “What an unexpected and moving experience it was,” remembers Prof. Rebecca Nunley, program director. “Women who had waited 20 years, traveled cross country, some with specific career objectives, many eager to learn for self-enrichment alone, each one ready to start our new adventure with us.” This online degree completion program is designed for practicing hygienists and, aside from a required entry course in periodontal therapy and technology skills, allows students to progress at their own pace and choice regarding course sequence and completion of university requirements. Since the program began, a total of 76 students have entered and 21 have graduated.
Programs in other schools use distance learning in various ways to make participation more convenient for their students. The Bachelor of Health Science program with an allied dental concentration at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey offers all its courses online except for the Internship in Allied Dental Practice. The Ohio State University offers a degree completion program leading to a BSDH via a web-based distance format similar to East Tennessee State’s. Scheduling is flexible; students may enroll part-time or full-time, any time throughout the year; and the courses may require one to two visits to the Columbus campus each quarter, but weekly classroom attendance is not required.
Depending on their program’s resources and needs, educators determine whether they will use asynchronous or synchronous learning methods—or both. Asynchronous learning, explains Dr. Cynthia Amyot, program director at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, “means that learning can take place at any location and at any time. It virtually means access to learning is available 24/7.” Synchronous learning “is delivered in real time through such technology as weekly Internet-based formats using chat rooms,” says Dr. Amyot. The UMKC program, which uses both types, offers courses that must be completed on the same timetable as the on-campus students, following the same course guidelines, assignments, exams, and projects. The distance education students are required to attend one on-campus class session per semester in their first year; additional on-site visits may be required.
The entire bachelor’s program at St. Petersburg College, Florida, on the other hand, is delivered online and requires no campus visits. According to Dean Tami Grzesikowski, students enter the 18-month program as a cohort (two cohorts of 25 students are accepted for each entering class) and progress through the curriculum together. Courses are offered one at a time in a shortened time frame of six to eight weeks in length, with at least one week off between classes. There are no set tracks for students to follow; they develop their own learning contract and identify a mentor to facilitate their practicum.
A major factor in providing course content online at the Tunxis Community College dental hygiene program in Connecticut was to alleviate the travel time for students, say program coordinator Prof. Claudia Turcotte and department chair Prof. Mary Bencivengo. Though their students must come to the campus for lectures, the program includes two hybrid online courses (radiology and dental materials) and one course totally online (pharmacology). The clinical parts of the curriculum take place at 25 sites around the state under the supervision of faculty who travel with students to the assigned facility.
Greater accessibility for students is not the only benefit of distance learning, however. Many programs have been established in underserved locations specifically in hopes of educating allied dental personnel who will remain in those areas to practice and thus improve access to dental care. That was the motivation for the new West Division of the University of Nebraska College of Dentistry dental hygiene program in the Scottsbluff/Gehring area of western Nebraska. The first class of this program graduated in early May, and although it consisted of only four students, they have seen more than 1,000 patients in the past two years alone, says Todd Junge, program coordinator. The students “attend” classes via distance learning at Panhandle Community Services in Gering five days a week, work in the clinic 12 hours or more a week, and also participate in community events such as dental health screenings for the public schools. The four graduates have already accepted positions in rural Nebraska.
Improving access in underserved communities was also the motivation for the establishment of a distance education dental hygiene program in Lafayette, Louisiana, to meet the needs of the southwest area of the state. In this partnership among the Louisiana State University School of Dentistry, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and the Lafayette Community Health Care Clinic, the majority of the didactic curriculum is transmitted from the LSU dental school to students in Lafayette via compressed video in synchronous time. Students treat patients in a dental clinic renovated by the dental school as well as rotating to the community clinic each week. Four classes have graduated from this program so far and all students have found employment in the area within three months of graduation. “Overall, this has been a win-win situation for students, faculty, dentists, and citizens of Louisiana,” said Prof. Caroline Mason, Coordinator of Dental Hygiene at the LSU School of Dentistry.
With the word spreading about the effectiveness of distance education in allied dental education, more and more programs can be expected. Prof. Sheila Kitamura reports that her tiny dental assisting program at Kapi’olani Community College in Hawai’i is developing a dental learning website to provide online continuing education on oral cancer and tobacco cessation for dental professionals. And Indiana University School of Dentistry is developing a distance learning curriculum for its dental assisting program to be offered starting in July 2007. “With the use of modern technology, a career in dental assisting is accessible and affordable to all students,” said Prof. Patricia A. Capps, Director of Dental Assisting at IU. “The dental community in rural areas will have well-trained and qualified dental assistants in their dental practices. Consumers can be assured they are receiving quality care.”
In allied dental education, distance education is a tool that is creating win-win situations everywhere.