Taking Safety Education On-line

Nov. 30, 1999
East Carolina University uses the Internet to make safety education available in even the most remote locations.

Olivia Julian and her boss live in the Marshall Islands, about 2,400 miles southeast of Hawaii, on your "garden variety" tropical island. The weather is typically 85 F during the day and 79 F in the evenings. She enjoys windsurfing, beach volleyball, kayaking, golfing, scuba diving, rollerblading, and drinking an ice cold pina colada while watching the beautiful sunsets. She feels truly lucky to live in this idyllic paradise. The island is like a small town. It has an airport, marine department, utilities department, school, hospital, and stores.

Olivia and her boss work as safety engineers for a company that has been contracted by the Army to monitor a ballistic missile defense range. Olivia is responsible for the safety program for the automotive and utilities departments. A few years ago, it would have been impossible for Olivia or her boss to obtain a master's degree in occupational safety on the island. That is a situation she shares with two soldiers working in safety at a base in Korea, the safety engineer who spends most of his work week on the road and the United States Air Force officer who gets transferred frequently. In the past, none of these working professionals would have been able to work on graduate degrees, yet they and many others are obtaining their master of science degrees on-line, that is, on the Internet from East Carolina University (ECU).

History of the On-line Master's Degree

The on-line master of science program at East Carolina University resulted from a series of attempts to deliver a quality product at a distance. In 1993, Dr. J.B. Duvall, a professor in ECU's Department of Industrial Technology, was awarded a grant to develop a distance learning program at the master's level in manufacturing. Duvall traveled to a nearby town and broadcasted his class via a closed-circuit television system that linked three manufacturing sites of the same corporation. Two of the plant sites were in North Carolina and one was in New Jersey. The class began when everyone was present at each of the three sites and the phone company had made all connections successfully. Video reception was only fair, but it was indeed interactive. Among the courses taught was a class in safety.

Unfortunately, system reliability was lacking. On a typical class night, the video interaction did not function most of the time. Links to all three sites worked sporadically. As a result, the class often degenerated to use of the phone lines for audio only. The task was frustrating and the efforts were expensive. The cost of the equipment and phone line use for video transmission was nearly prohibitive. Only the grant and corporate support made it feasible.

Attempts were made later to offer the safety courses to other sites using similar methodology. The broadcasts were done from a small studio on campus to two remote sites inside North Carolina. The system was reliable and students soon felt comfortable using it, but the scope of the system was extremely limited. Students had to travel from their work or home to the receiving location. Moreover, a new University of North Carolina policy governing the broadcast system required that each broadcasting site pay each remote site approximately $300 per night of broadcast. Since some of the sites only had a few students and each one was paying approximately $300 per course, this became an economically impossible arrangement.

To solve some of the access problems, Dr. Duvall and others within the Department of Industrial Technology began offering courses via the Internet. The manufacturing concentration was offered through that medium as well as a new major in digital communications. Soon, it was decided to offer the complete safety concentration by Internet as well. A policy was established within the Department of Industrial Technology that if a course was offered in the classroom at the master's level, it would also be offered on the Net.

Entry into the Program

The complete application and enrollment process is available online. Once a student registers for the course, he or she receives a syllabus by electronic mail. Texts are purchased through the university bookstore or through the bookseller of personal choice.

Students desiring to enter the master's program must take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and have a satisfactory undergraduate grade point average from an accredited institution. Admittance into the graduate school takes months, so most students start taking classes on a conditional basis. No more than nine hours can count toward the degree under conditional admittance. Conditional admittance gives students who have decided to enroll near the beginning of a term the opportunity to start taking classes before formal admission occurs. A strict admissions policy is enforced; students who do not meet criteria for admittance may not be accepted even after successfully completing a course or two. Students who try to slip through the system by continuing to take classes are disappointed to learn that the nine-hour rule is inflexible and that any classes taken beyond that do not count toward university requirements for graduation.

What is Involved in the Program?

The core of the program consists of nine classes which help the students learn safety and safety management. By the time the students finish the program, they will have the tools they need to go into a company and "do" safety.

Students who already have an undergraduate degree in safety are given alternate courses for any material they have already mastered. If they prefer, they are given the option of "testing out" of a particular subject. This permits students to move through the program at a faster pace if they bring a wealth of experience to the classroom. Unfortunately for some, they can only eliminate six hours of the program in that manner. Many students who have worked in a particular area, such as ergonomics or industrial hygiene, enjoy looking at it from a fresh perspective anyway. Some of the best learning experiences for both parties occur when a seasoned veteran of safety and a recent graduate of a bachelor's program team to solve a safety problem.

In their first semester, students are required to take a course in Internet research methods so they can learn the latest techniques in using the Internet for research and communication purposes. Students learn to use technology-based information retrieval systems and to work on developing skills in analyzing and presenting data, both on- and off-line. The course is beneficial, even for those with extensive Internet experience, because it helps them to learn how to integrate their skills into an academic and a workplace environment. They can take safety courses simultaneously, or wait until a subsequent semester if they are uncomfortable with their Internet skills.

A spring or fall term runs 15 weeks. A summer term runs 10 weeks. In every class, a student is given weekly assignments, which they complete and return within 7 to 10 days. A normal assignment requires a student to visit a workplace and talk to a member of management about some problem he or she is having in safety. The student may also be required to look up a regulatory interpretation or find other safety-related information in the library or on the Net.

Once the term is underway, group assignments are also utilized. The student is placed in a working group with two or three other students. They meet by telephone if they desire, but most choose to meet online. The School of Industry and Technology maintains a website and a server which permit students and faculty to log on and talk using Internet Relay Chat (IRC) software. Many professors and students simply choose to go to a chat room such as those hosted at www.yahoo.com. Sometimes the students are given problems to solve individually or as part of their group. The safety program attempts to simulate the on-campus learning experience as much as possible.

Students are also given projects to complete during the semester. A typical project will require the student to research a relevant topic or to develop an audit form for a given enterprise and then conduct the audit. Since students are often located thousands of miles apart, they develop the audit as part of a group and conduct the audit in locations close to their own homes. The only trouble encountered has been when state OSHA compliance officers were enrolled in the class. Companies were reluctant to permit them to come in to complete their student projects. Some of the students opted to work with federally operated workplaces where state OSHA had no jurisdiction. The other option was for them to step out of their roles as compliance officers in order to conduct the audit as any other student would. As is usually the case with the class projects, the compliance officers were in a position to perform a service to the employers by pointing out areas that needed improvement from both a management and a technical perspective.

How expensive is it?

Prospective students often wonder about the costs of pursuing a degree online. And they are also concerned about how much of a course load they can handle. Each graduate course costs about $300 for tuition. Books, which usually cost anywhere from $60 to $150, are an additional expense. Students who work full-time and want to enjoy any sort of life at all rarely take more than two classes in a semester. Classes are offered in spring, summer and fall terms. Students also need access to a reasonably recent and powerful computer. If the student has a job that requires a lot of travel, a quality laptop is a necessity.

Who Participates?

Nearly all of the students in the distance portion of the program are working professionals. Only a few of the on-campus students are working professionals when they begin the program. Since students who lack a recent professional background in safety are required to complete an internship, all have had work experience by the time they graduate.

One of the requirements of the program is that students complete a "capstone project" before they graduate. Most choose to deal with a problem they have encountered at work. Some choose a problem or research topic away from their work site.

In the last few years, students have had the option to travel for a couple of weeks to take a look at safety from a different perspective. In the summer of 1998, students traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia and Seattle. They had the opportunity to compare safety programs at similar facilities on both sides of the border. More recently, students traveled to London and Glasgow to consider the British methodology for handling safety. In previous years, students traveled to Mexico and the southwest United State and to Sweden. Plans are currently underway for the next study trip.

As might be expected, some of the students never have the opportunity to physically meet one another or their professors until they take a study trip. In some cases, the first trip to campus was for graduation. Although attendance at graduation ceremonies is not required, it is strongly encouraged. Students who complete the program by distance learning methods gain much of the same sense of school identity as those who complete it on campus. They truly enjoy the ceremonies and the fellowship with other students and faculty members.

If you would like to learn more about this master's program which is available online, the credentials of the faculty, and East Carolina University, you can go to the website at www.sit.edu/graduate/Masters/Safety/Index.html

Mark A. Friend, Ph.D., CSP, is an associate professor at East Carolina University and director of the Occupational Safety and Health Consortium in Greenville, S.C. He is a member of Occupational Hazards' Editorial Advisory Board.

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