DISTANCE EDUCATION IN THE DEPARTMENT OF STATISTICS AT IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY

W. Robert Stephenson
Iowa State University

Newsletter for the Section on Statistical Education
Volume 4, Number 2 (Summer 1998)


In 1993 the Department of Statistics at Iowa State University (ISU) entered into a collaborative agreement to offer a Masters of Science in Statistics program to General Motors (GM) employees through the GM Technical Education Program. The Technical Education Program coordinates course offerings to GM sites in the U.S., Luxembourg and Mexico. Courses are presented on the ISU campus and to GM via videotape delay.

When GM first approached the Department with the idea of an MS program in statistics that would be delivered to students at a distance, there was considerable discussion amongst the faculty about the merits of such an undertaking. Questions about the quality of the potential students, the ability to offer an experience similar to the one our on- campus students have, access to computing for distance students and resources quickly arose. The faculty recognized that such a program would take away time and resources from other activities of the Department. Would it be worth it?

At about the same time, the central administration at ISU began a big push toward expanding offerings beyond the traditional bounds of the campus. With money from GM to develop a new "bridge" sequence of courses, Applied Statistics for Industry I & II, and with the encouragement of the university administration, the Department developed a plan to offer its MS program at a distance. The faculty insisted that the requirements and standards for distance education students be the same as those for on-campus students.

The new sequence of courses, Applied Statistics for Industry I & II, was developed with two goals in mind. One was to provide to individuals planning to enter the MS program refresher courses on statistical thinking and methods. The second goal was to offer a course to engineers and managers, not necessarily contemplating the advanced degree, that would give them practical tools to build knowledge about processes and products, to solve problems and to improve quality. The first year this sequence was taught, 55 students at GM took the first course in fall 1994 and 40 students continued on to the second course in spring 1995. The enrollment fell in the second year but then rebounded in the third year when we opened the course to distance education students at industrial sites in Iowa. Enrollment in these courses has leveled off to 15 to 20 distance education students and 15 to 20 on-campus students each semester.

The MS program in statistics consists of four core courses that on-campus students take in their first year along with some elective courses. At the end of the first year, students take a written exam over the core course material. In the second year, students complete their elective course work and do a creative component (an individual project under the direction of a major professor). Since distance education students normally take only one course a semester (they are working full time, sometimes more) we had to make some adjustments. Two core courses are offered to distance education students each year (methods one year and theory the next). Distance education students take one portion of the written master's exam at the end of each of the first two years. At least one elective course is offered each semester for distance education students. These students may also use approved courses taken from other universities through the GM Technical Education Program in their program of study for the ISU master's degree.

The first year that core courses were offered at a distance was 1995-96. There were 30 GM students enrolled in the fall semester Statistical Methods course and 16 in the spring semester Linear Models course. There has been a fair amount of attrition in the program. The MS in statistics is a challenging program that is made more difficult by the constraints of being at a distance. Although we have tried to make the experience as similar to the one our on-campus students have, it is not the same. The distance education student has a full time job that often requires travel. The on-campus student has at most a half time assistantship. Although the professors that teach the courses are available for consultation via phone and e-mail, the distance education student cannot just pop into the office with a question. One of the biggest differences is the access to peers. On-campus students quickly get to know the other students in the program. There may be as many as 50 on- campus students in the core courses. Even if there are 20 students at GM, they are spread out among several sites. There is one student who is the only student in our program at a site in Mexico. The on- campus students also have access to second year students and Ph.D. candidates.

With the inherent difficulties of education at a distance we are still having success. This spring our first GM student came to campus for her final oral exam. She will receive an MS in Statistics from Iowa State University at the August graduation ceremony. There are several other GM students who are working on their creative components and will finish in the near future. In fall 1997 we started our second cycle through the core courses and expanded the program by offering it to students at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. We continue to offer the Applied Statistics for Industry sequence to GM, where it is one of seven corporate strategy courses, and to industrial sites in Iowa. In spring 1998 we had a half dozen students from Hewlett- Packard sites enrolled in a reliability course. Employees at 3M will start taking courses this fall, so the program is growing. We continue to look for improvements to the way we offer our courses and our MS program to statistics students at a distance.

I would like to thank Dean Isaacson, Head of the Department of Statistics, for his assistance with this article. For further information please contact:

Professor Dean Isaacson
Head, Department of Statistics
102 Snedecor Hall
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011-1210
Phone:(515) 294-3440
Fax: (515) 294-4040
e-mail: dli@iastate.edu
http://www.public.iastate.edu/~stat/


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