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Wise Words: Retiring WSU dean helped pioneer distance learning

Muriel Oaks, who retired Tuesday as dean of the Center for Distance and Professional Education at Washington State University, poses behind some of the many awards she has won during her time at the university.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)
Muriel Oaks, who retired Tuesday as dean of the Center for Distance and Professional Education at Washington State University, poses behind some of the many awards she has won during her time at the university. (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

In 1985, mass use of e-mail and the Internet was 10 years away, and most people still rented, rather than owned, VCR machines to watch movies on.

Yet Samuel H. Smith, then president of Washington State University, envisioned using video technology to teach students in new branch campuses in Spokane, Tri-Cities and Vancouver, Wash.

Muriel Oaks helped make Smith’s 20th-century vision a 21st-century thriving concern.

Oaks, 67, retired Tuesday as dean of WSU’s Center for Distance and Professional Education.

During Oaks’ tenure, distance learning – the once-revolutionary idea that a professor in Pullman could teach students in other cities – matriculated into mainstream academic life.

The program now offers seven undergrad degree majors and four graduate degrees, and is called “WSU Online” to reflect its modern evolution.

What Oaks learned about innovation and change in the academic world can translate to any organization or business trying to change and innovate in this recession time, as she explained in a recent Wise Words interview, excerpted here.

• I grew up in Caldwell, Idaho. I was horse crazy. I had horses from the time I was 5.

In those days, there was a lot of freedom. My mom used to pack me a lunch, wave goodbye and say, “Be home before dark.” It was a nice way to grow up.

My dad was an entrepreneur. He had a regional bus line, and a moving and storage company for a long time. He sold that in his 40s and then just did a whole lot of different things. He was still working part-time when he died at age 88.

• What did I get in my childhood I’ve always used? I was always pretty independent and my mom was very encouraging of that. It wasn’t typical then.

When I was in college in medical technology, you did a year of internship in a hospital. I really wanted to go to Southern California. When I got accepted in Pasadena, my friends would say, “Aren’t your parents going to freak out when you go so far away from home?” My parents were thrilled for me. It was like “Wow, lucky you! This is going to be so great!”

• One of my former staff members shared with me something I used to say when something at work seemed especially stressful. My comment was “remember that no one will die if we make a mistake – our decisions are not life and death.”

My perspective came from my years as a medical technologist, where decisions and actions could be life and death. It helped keep the rest in perspective.

• How did we first get people on board with distance learning? For faculty, they wanted to know it wouldn’t take away faculty jobs.

We were doing pre-produced videotapes. There was a concern: “Oh gosh, you’ve got me on videotape, you won’t need me anymore.” That was a very understandable concern, not just at WSU but at other places that were trying to do it.

You had to find out what the concerns were and then acknowledge them. “Tell me why you think it won’t work, and let’s see if we can find a solution.” Just being heard, boy that goes a long way.

• When you get a faculty member willing to (change), you have to make it successful because faculty members are the best salespeople to other faculty members. For some, it sounded like fun, like something that might give them new insights on teaching.

Luckily, some of these were senior, well-respected faculty who could carry the banner for us. We tried hard to make it a positive experience, so they weren’t bad-mouthing it as they went on.

• The students in Pullman, and the students at the (distance learning) campuses, were really different. I would always sit in on the first class of every interactive (course) to make sure everything worked. You’d hear the faculty have everyone introduce themselves.

In Pullman, you’d find a lot of people who had just finished their business degree and stayed on to get their MBA. So they were 23 years old. Then in Vancouver and Tri-Cities you had hospital administrators and business people.

They each had something unique to bring to the class. The students were up on the theories. But man, those people in the Tri-Cities and Vancouver, they knew what worked and what didn’t.

• How will online learning help us out of the recession? It will be a part of the recovery, for sure. Increasingly, students can’t just leave where they live and show up on campus. We started this program in the early ’90s thinking we were serving rural Washington, but most of our students are on the I-5 corridor. They work during the day. They can’t go to a campus, or don’t want to once they come home from work.

• We get students in their 70s who always wanted to finish their degrees. They get involved with the technology. They attach files and download video. They are stepping up saying, “Well, I haven’t done this before, but I can learn.”

• I know change is hard for people, but we tell people when they come to work here that this is not the place for you if you can’t be flexible, because we are changing all the time. If we aren’t making our faculty, the dean, the students happy, they will go someplace else.

• How do you develop an openness to change? You start from the top and make it clear this is the expectation. For instance, “OK, you like the office you’re in, but now we have more people, and we’re going to have to change things around.”

People are protective of their space. They don’t like moving. We just say, “Hey, gotta happen.” A month later, they forgot they liked that other office better.

• I’ve changed a lot of things in my life. It’s what kept me enjoying coming to work every day for 28 years.

• How will I carry this change philosophy into retirement? We have a second home in Oldtown, Idaho, up near Newport. That’s where my husband was originally from. We have a home and a bunch of acres and trees.

There’s a program, something like “family forest stewardship,” and it’s offered to families like us who have a forest but they don’t know too much about taking care of it.

So one of the first things we’re going to do together is take this course. I’m anxious to move in new directions.

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