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Pieces of Eight


ECU Distance Education Continues Mission to Serve

By Christine Neff

As schools around the country recognize National Distance Learning Week this Nov. 10 to 14, East Carolina University’s Distance Education program has reason to celebrate.

Using online tools, distance learning has put a modern spin on ECU’s mission, “to serve.” The academic outreach that started with a single, off-campus class in 1947 has grown to have an international reach.

“We’re providing services to students who are choosing distance education simply because it’s their only option for a university degree, not because it is simply more convenient,” said Elmer Poe, associate vice chancellor of Academic Outreach. “I’m really happy that ECU has been able to embrace the use of pedagogies and technology to serve our working citizens.”

This fall, 6,190 students are taking online classes at ECU in more than 60 advanced degree, degree completion and certificate programs.

Online students have been as young as 18 and as old as 81. They log on to virtual classrooms in 99 of the 100 counties in North Carolina, 43 of the 50 states and five countries other than the United States, according to demographics.

Even traditional students are logging on. More than 2,000 students who take face-to-face classes on campus are also enrolled in online courses this semester.

Poe expects this trend to continue as the line between on-campus and online learning blurs. “More and more, we find our students coming to us ready to learn in what we used to call non-conventional ways,” Poe said. “It’s that blended approach to learning that enhances the learning experience for everyone with the use of online tools.”

Long before those online tools became available, ECU began laying the groundwork for a successful distance education program.

In the 60 years since ECU offered its first class off-campus, faculty members often traveled to classrooms in other locations to meet with students geographically removed from campus.

Clayton Sessoms, director of ECU’s Continuing Studies, said this led to a “culture of outreach” that allowed the university to embrace the use of online education.

Visionary faculty members and college leaders led the adoption of this technology, he said. “Without the vision, initiative and cooperation of the colleges, our standing now would never have happened. We are successful, not just because of an administrative effort, but because of the academic efforts,” Sessoms said.

ECU’s first online master’s program – a Master of Science in Industrial Technology – received approval in 1996. Public interest in online classes became apparent, and, in the late 1990s, the state began to put funds towards online education.

ECU’s programs took off, and from 1998 to 2008, enrollment increased from 800 to more than 6,000 students.

Distance education has benefited the campus community in many ways, Poe said. Tools and technologies adopted for distance learners now commonly complement face-to-face instruction. And traditional, college-aged students have the chance to interact with working adults, a relationship he believes helps both parties.

But perhaps the biggest benefit goes to students who complete degrees that would have been unattainable without online courses. Dave Batts, program coordinator for ECU’s Bachelor of Science in Industrial Technology (BSIT) degree completion program, has worked with many students like that. The BSIT program lets students with an associate’s degree in applied science put their community college coursework towards a bachelor’s degree that can be completed online.

“Our students are often professionals, working 40 hours a week. This is the only way they can finish their four-year education without having to quit their job,” Batts said.

The program, which draws many applicants from the Charlotte and Raleigh areas, has grown to 451 students from 170 when it started in 2005, and Batts expects that pace to continue.

He takes pride in knowing the program creates opportunities for working individuals to develop professionally and achieve personal goals. “I have a passion for my program,” he said. “I can smile knowing that it’s helping out these people that didn’t have this chance five to 10 years ago.”

ECU will host “Think-In 2008: A Teaching with Technology Showcase,” to highlight how faculty members are using technology in both distance education and face-to-face classes. The workshop will be Wednesday, Nov. 12, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Mendenhall Great Rooms. For more information, visit

This page originally appeared in the Nov. 3, 2008 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at