Debbie Whitney. (Photo by Richard H. Miller)
PULLMAN, Wash. – Some stones should be left unturned.
From 2004-2007, students taking Geology 210 through WSU Online had to identify rocks in their neighborhoods and send nickel-size pieces to the professor. Instead, students sometimes sent 30-pound boxes filled with “boulders,” as described by Debbie Whitney, enrollment manager at the Center for Distance and Professional Education.
Faculty hauled boxes of rocks from Pullman’s Van Doren Hall to their offices, then threw them away later. “Their driveways got full of rocks,” Whitney said. One student submitted pieces of slate tile and marble countertop. The instructor left them at the CDPE, where they now serve as coasters.
In 2007, back-weary CDPE staffers turned the tables. They began sending kits filled with small rocks and fossils to students for identification. But that doesn’t mean students can stay home. They still must wander their neighborhoods.
“I have the students go on self-directed field trips,” said Clinical Assistant Professor Kathryn Baldwin, who has taught Geology 210 both online and on campus for the past decade. “They interpret the geologic history of their location, then write up a field guide and post it on a discussion board.”
In her on-campus course, she takes all the students to the same place. Her online students report back from wherever they happen to live.
“What is really great is the rest of the class gets to see places all over the world, such as Egypt, Australia and Japan,” Baldwin said.
Jessica Zemaitis is a WSU Vancouver student who took the online course this summer.
“I was thrilled we were sent out to the field to really learn about our amazing Earth,” she said. “The rock kit was a pleasant surprise. I was a little confused at first, but I kept at it until everything fell into place.”
While Whitney is glad she’s no longer hauling rocks, she does miss the old days.
“We used to send out microscopes from Montgomery Ward’s,” said Whitney, who has worked at WSU for 21 years. “We don’t ship nearly as much fun stuff anymore.”
In fact, the CDPE doesn’t ship much of anything anymore. In 2009, CDPE staff created and launched an online media center – a single Web page where students can access nearly all course materials, including videos, slide presentations, animations, audio and movie clips.
Between 2008 and 2010, shipping dropped 82 percent, students stopped having to worry about mailings, and the cost of materials and copyrights plummeted. All of which makes 2007 – in retrospect – look like the Stone Age.