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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Recognizing the Lewis & Clark of distance learning

On the count of 3, every teacher and every student at every level at every school across the country should say "thank you" to Al Turgeon.

As professors, teachers and students of all ages change the way they teach and learn amid the COVID-19 scare, each owes a debt of gratitude to the longtime professor of turfgrass science at Penn State who pioneered distance learning and changed forever the way curriculum is delivered - and received. 

032020al2.jpgWhile many instructors and many schools have been teaching online for years, Turgeon is the Lewis and Clark of distance learning. His Turf 235 class in 1998 was the first college course offered when Penn State rolled out the country's first online education program known as the World Campus. As it turned out, Turgeon and others at Penn State were working simultaneously yet independently of each other toward developing online curriculum when the two worlds collided in a case of great minds thinking alike. Turgeon's class was ready, and it went online first.

The result is what today is an exhaustive distance learning program that offers 179 graduate and undergraduate degree and certificate programs.

"It just so happened that the two worlds converged at that time," Turgeon said. "There were a lot of people who were involved in that, but it was fun being part of that group. I've derived a great deal of satisfaction being part of that and seeing it all come to fruition."

Turgeon, now 76, retired in 2012. He recalls it wasn't always smooth sailing in those early days of the World Campus.

"The way we engaged students was trial and error," he said. "The kids were our Guinea pigs."

Distance learning was not something Turgeon just stumbled into.He has been involved in it since the 1960s, when he served as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and developed instructional texts for soldiers.

He worked with other early versions of distance learning tools at the University of Illinois, where in the 1970s he lectured by telephone from a remote location over a slide presentation on a platform named Telenet. 

"I was asked to travel and speak at meetings," he said. "I just thought there had to be a better way."

In the pre-Internet age of the late 1980s and early '90s, he worked with satellite feeds and recorded videos. Finally, by the mid-90s a student showed him something new, the Mosaic web-browser developed at the University of Illinois through funding provided by a bill written by then Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, Jr.

There were a lot of people who were involved in that, but it was fun being part of that group. I've derived a great deal of satisfaction being part of that and seeing it all come to fruition."

"I knew right away that was the future of education," Turgeon said. "People could learn on their own time at their own place.

"I learned HTML coding and we started developing online learning resources that improved over time."

His concern in those early days of the World Campus was that distance learning would be perceived as "cheap or easy education," and he made sure that didn't happen. 

"Nobody thought you could teach that way," he said. "When I started it, I had to make it tough."

Today, Penn State entomologist Ben McGraw, Ph.D., teaches that Turf 235 class. When he first took over the class, he thought he might have to overhaul it. In the end, he has done little more than update graphics.

"I thought I was going to change it all," McGraw said. "It was so rigorous when I came out the other end, I didn't change a thing."

For those who doubt the veracity of distance learning or the quality of education it can afford, Turgeon says that all depends on how the instructor approaches each course.

"I insisted that my students log in every day and do the lessons. I continually engaged them," he said. "I taught them to ask good questions, and I think that was a better situation than someone sitting in the last row in a room of 100 students. Now that is distance learning."

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Edited by John Reitman

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