Broadband Instruction: Distance Education at New Mexico Tech, Nov. 11, 2005

by Valerie Kimble Warren Ostergren

Right: Dr. Warren Ostergren

SOCORRO, N.M., Nov. 11, 2005 – A student walks into a classroom in Albuquerque, and is greeted by the course professor in an entirely separate classroom on the campus of New Mexico Tech, 75 miles away.

Such is the scene of the growing technology of distance instruction.

Tech has been offering distance education courses since 2000. Under the umbrella of Educational Outreach/Distance Instruction (EODI), and the direction of Dr. Iver Davidson, the program is thriving and charting new ground.

On this particular afternoon, Dr. Warren Ostergren is preparing to teach session 10 of Managing Technology Resources, a three-credit course in the Engineering Management program.

“The focus of the course is how to be an engineering manager; how to plan, deal with people and provide leadership,” said Ostergren, a former manager with General Electric in the areas of power generation and aircraft engines.

He is currently a faculty member with both the Management and Mechanical Engineering departments at New Mexico Tech.

Ostergren brings to his courses real-world experience in engineering management, the science of managing technical people and technical issues, and in dealing with the myriad of issues related to both.

In essence, he says, the skills learned in engineering management can be applied to any technical field.

Engineering management is a relatively new area that caught fire in the 1980s when companies discovered that the finest technical staff did not necessarily make the best managers.

“It used to be on-the-job training, which led to on-the-job problems,” said Ostergren.

Enrollment in distance education courses at Tech varies; each course typically draws an average of five to 10 students, the majority of which catch the class over a video feed. Twenty distance ed courses were offered for the Fall 2005 semester.

Macromedia Breeze provides for multiple simultaneous audio and video connections. “We’ve done some work this semester allowing both instructors and a student presenter to communicate via audio simultaneously during student presentations,” said Davidson.

“Next semester, we hope to begin allowing all online distance students equipped with a microphone and headset to use audio to communicate with the class,” he said. “We’re also working on a way to increase communication between the live class and students taking the class asynchronously.”

The arrangement means students no longer have to take a course in a specially equipped classroom. “I have one student who is taking the course while he’s on business travel,” said Ostergren. “That kind of flexibility is a real advantage to taking the course.”

In-class exercises include analyzing technical case studies and offering suggestions on how to respond to a particular situation, from technical problems to interpersonal issues.

Ostergren smiled as he recalled a recent exercise analyzing customer comments about coffee giant Starbucks. He noted a decided difference between the response from students in Socorro and those in larger cities. “We had fun with that discussion,” he said.

Discussion in distance instruction refers to typed communications which appear on a screen in the EODI classroom. The instructor then shares the comments with everyone in the class.

Ostergren noted that comments often come in at a frenetic pace, where in a traditional classroom setting, there are usually some students reluctant to speak out. “I found that sort of neat and unexpected,” he said.

Because all of Tech’s distance offerings are graduate courses, students taking them tend to be highly motivated – and busy: some students have full-time jobs while they pursue a graduate degree.

Ostergren worked for GE in Lynn, Mass., near MIT and other prestigious schools, an area teeming with some of the top students in the country. New Mexico Tech students, he said, can hold their own with the best of them.

“Tech has been very successful in attracting the best minds in New Mexico,” Ostergren said. “They come here for a reason. There’s no need to police them or try to get them motivated, which has been extremely rewarding.”

After a sound check, it’s time for class to begin. Ostergren delivers his course lecture before two students in Socorro, one in a distance classroom in Albuquerque, and five others, one of whom is watching the class from a business hotel.