Opportunities in Wet-End Chemistry: Feature Essay, from Spring 2000

"Our Experiences Starting a Distance M.S. Degree Program for Pulp and Paper"

Martin A. Hubbe
Dept. Wood & Paper Sci., N.C. State Univ., Box 8005, Raleigh, NC 27695-8005
Citation (public domain): http://www4.ncsu.edu/~hubbe/new

There are 13 students who are signed up to receive a grade in my graduate-level semester course in wet-end and colloidal chemistry. But only one of them ever comes to class. The others are located in such places as Minnesota, Michigan, Arizona, and Georgia. I'd like to tell a story about how this came about and what we have experienced during our very first semester of distance education in pulp and paper technology.

Have you ever considered furthering your career by getting a Master's degree in Wood and Paper Science? Or do you just want to bone up on specific subjects related to the field? Either of these goals could be a reason to go to a university and take courses. But can you spare the time? And can you afford to take two years away from work? About a year ago the faculty at NC State's Department of Wood and Paper Science decided that there ought to be another option.

We have been fortunate to have access to an excellent video recording studio, so we chose to use videocassettes as a primary means of delivering content. Other features that we use include conventional textbooks, photocopied notes, electronic reserve reading, e-mail discussions, chat rooms, a website for posting of assignments and completed work, on-line quiz homework, and class presentations required of all students. As chance had it, the same course had to be offered two semesters in a row, and that's why only one of our on-campus students was scheduled to take the class for a grade. It felt odd, at first, to talk to one student, a few people auditing the course, and a bunch of cameras. But take it from me, it is possible to get used to anything in the course of 26 taping sessions.

No kidding; off-campus students do make class presentations. The majority of the students chose to deliver their presentation to us by e-mail with "attached" images they had created using computer presentation software. I then loaded the files onto a PC in the studio, where we projected them onto our screens, and also fed the signal into our videocassette system. As of the time of this writing, six of the students have sent accompanying scripts to be read with their slides. Four incorporated narration into their software files. One sent an audiocassette tape by separate mail.

"I take the class notes with me to our production meetings," one student noted. Her facility was wrestling with serious paper machine runnability issues. On several occasions she had the experience of explaining to her coworkers how they might use strategies she had learned about on the previous evening from a videocassette lesson. Another student related how our review of fiber surface changes during drying was helping him to develop a strategy to improve pulp quality at his mill.

Our e-mail discussions usually start with a focus on the class material. But often we digress. Issues related to the running of paper mills keep creeping into the discussions. Fortunately, many of these discussions are of a sufficiently generic nature that it is appropriate to share the e-mail content with the rest of the class. Some other discussions are kept confidential, but the main thing is that we know our students are already applying what they have studied.

We were again fortunate to become an early user of on-line testing software developed by our Department of Physics at NC State. Our students tell us "it's a great learning tool." So far we have not used the electronic quizzes to replace written tests. Rather, we've assigned the quizzes as homework for purposes of practice and self-assessment. Each student's score is reported to him or her immediately after submission of the "answers." An answer key is immediately available.

Our typical distance-M.S. student can be described as follows: He or she has a B.S. degree and one to ten years experience in the industry. He or she works either for a paper company or for a supplier to the industry. Many have no plans (yet) to complete an M.S. degree program. Others do. In the fall of 1999 we had seven off-campus students join our graduate-level course in Paper Physics. We had twelve distance-education students attending the course in Wet-End and Colloid Chemistry. Two more core courses are scheduled for Spring 2000: One is called "Wood Chemistry, Pulping, and Bleaching." The other is called "Unit Operations and Control." Also available is an elective course to help prepare managers for the pulp and paper industry. Though there is no laboratory requirement, candidates for our Masters of Wood and Paper Science degree must complete a special project, under supervision of a faculty advisor team. We expect that most students will select projects related to their current work. Those who need to learn further details about our program should call our departmental office at (919) 515-2888 and request a brochure.

In 1999, 100% of the students enrolling in our courses had access to e-mail, a web browser, and a video cassette player. Who can predict what the typical prospective student will have access to in 2004? One possibility is greater bandwidth of Internet connections. We've discussed the possibility of gradually replacing video content with web-based content. Also, we imagine a future with real-time or non-simultaneous class discussions and virtual teams. The only sure thing is that things will change.

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