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The School's Online Dental Hygiene E-Learning Program

“The E-Learning Program is off to a great start. We’re looking to the future to see how we can continue to be successful,” says Janet Kinney, director of the School of Dentistry’s dental hygiene program as she talks about the E-Learning (online) Degree Completion Program.

Launched six years ago (January 2008), the Program was created to meet the needs of dental hygienists who want to earn a Bachelor of Science degree, continue working in their present jobs, and study at times that are convenient for them.

"The individual attention I received from the dental hygiene faculty was incredible."
Jennifer Beckering, Class of 2011

Seven students were the first to graduate five years ago.

The E-Learning Program has had a profound impact on each of its 42 graduates, according to Anne Gwozdek, program director and clinical assistant professor of dentistry who helped establish it.

“Our graduates tell us that our E-Learning Program is one of the best, if not the best, course of study they have ever taken,” Gwozdek says. “Because of the Program, they are increasingly involved in their profession and their communities.” [See sidebar.]

The success of the bachelor’s degree program led to developing an online program leading to a Master of Science degree in dental hygiene. For more than 40 years the degree was exclusively a program on the U-M campus. But since the fall of 2012, students have an alternative. They can now complete courses leading to a master’s degree online, if they choose. Like the bachelor’s program, the master’s online program is a two-year, six-semester course of study that totals 36 credit hours.

Helping Advance Careers

Graduates of the E-Learning Program say it has been a springboard in advancing their careers.

Jenny Smits Beckering, one of seven graduates of the Class of 2011, says the online bachelor’s degree program helped her advance professionally. She is the Michigan sales representative for Ivoclar Vivadent, a global leader in dental materials that employs more than 2,700 people in over 120 countries.

After earning an associate’s degree in dental hygiene at Grand Rapids Community College and working part time in a private practice, Beckering wanted to do more.

“I applied to Michigan’s online program because it offered the best of all possible worlds,” she says. “I could earn a degree in a field I am passionate about. I didn’t have to quit my job. And there was enough flexibility so I could study at times that were convenient for me, yet allow me to also have time with my family.”

Even though she and her six other classmates were not in a classroom with their instructors, Beckering said, “that didn’t matter. Technology allowed me and everyone else to have direct contact with them. The individual attention I received from the dental hygiene faculty was incredible.”

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the online program, Beckering says, “is that helped all of us realize that there are many opportunities to apply our dental hygiene education and training in other areas including teaching, research and even in the corporate world.”

“Never Felt Alone”

Samantha Reidenbach, a member of the Class of 2012, agrees.

"New leaders in our profession are emerging thanks to this program and the education it delivers."
Kathy Yee, Class of 2009

“The E-Learning Program gave me a big picture perspective about opportunities in dental hygiene I hadn’t considered, such as teaching, when I was working full time in a private practice,” she says. Reidenbach now works full time as a dental hygiene faculty member at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

“Although we were separated geographically, I never felt alone because of the support I received from the dental hygiene faculty and my classmates,” Reidenbach says. “The small size of the program fosters a special closeness and camaraderie among everyone.”

Reflecting on her experiences, Reidenbach says her capstone project “was probably the best part of the online program and my best experience.”

She investigated some of the occupational hazards dental hygienists face including infectious diseases and ergonomics. “I learned more about dental hygiene, but I also discovered I enjoyed writing,” she says. The results of Reidenbach’s work were published in the American Dental Hygienists’ Association magazine, Access, published last April. The title of her work was: Pregnancy and the RDH, Clinical Practice Occupational Hazard Considerations.

Participating in the School of Dentistry’s online program gave Reidenbach confidence to enroll in another distance learning program, this one leading to a master’s degree in educational technology from Central Michigan University.

Now a Distance Learning Teacher

One of the first seven graduates of the E-Learning Program, Kathy Yee (Class of 2009), says earning her bachelor’s degree gave her confidence to continue her studies, including earning a Master’s of Public Health from Benedictine University last year.

After successfully completing U-M’s online program, she got involved teaching some of the courses she took as an online student. She now directs two “community courses” where dental hygiene students work on oral health education projects in their communities. She also was recently appointed recruiting and admissions coordinator for the E-Learning Program.

“I’m trying to do for the online students what the dental hygiene faculty did for me when I was a student – helping the new students advance academically and enhancing their career growth as dental hygienists,” Yee says.

“Michigan’s online bachelor’s degree program in dental hygiene is now well known all across the state. New leaders in our profession are emerging thanks to this program and the education it delivers.”

Applying What Is Taught

Initially, Elisa Dack wanted to become a dentist. But that idea was put on hold for more than a decade after earning an associate’s degree in 2001, working in a private practice, and giving birth to three children.

After listening to Gwozdek describe the E-Learning Program at a meeting in West Branch, Michigan, Dack applied. She doesn’t regret her decision.

“I have never been in an educational program like this before,” she says. “You build great relationships with your classmates and the faculty, which some may consider a paradox since this is an online course.”

Dack describes the online dental hygiene program as “visible learning. You learn ‘facts’ and then have an opportunity to apply what you have learned in the real world.”

In her case, Dack collaborated with a local dentist, Dr. Jonathan Berns, in West Branch. “He offered some great insights that enabled me to develop an oral health care education program for 46 residents and 16 staff at The Brook,” an assisted living and retirement community, Dack said.

“Because of this community-based approach to dental hygiene education, my network is now more extensive than it ever has been. And it’s not limited to those in my profession. It’s broad based.”

The E-Learning Program, Dack says, reminds her “of a newly-planted tree that grows taller and develops limbs that reach out in different directions. In the E-Learning Program you grow as a dental hygienist and you can also branch out in many different directions.”

Dack is on track to receive her bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene this summer. She also hopes to earn a master’s degree in public health.

“The Best is Yet to Come”

“The E-Learning Program is grateful to the faculty who were pioneers in developing and teaching the online courses,” Kinney and Gwozdek said. “This was truly a team effort every step of the way. The guidance and leadership of Wendy Kerschbaum, who directed the dental hygiene program until she retired in 2012, and Emily Springfield, instructional designer, were instrumental in the success of this program,” they added.

Talking to graduates after they complete the E-Learning Program, both Kinney and Gwozdek say the graduates realize that they are more empowered to influence the direction of their careers.

“They are becoming more involved in their profession and their communities and are strongly committed to wanting to do more with their new skills and education. They also seem to become even more dedicated to lifelong learning,” Kinney says.

“We’re attracting top-caliber students. That will continue because of the caliber of our dental hygiene faculty and the graduates,” Gwozdek says. “But we’re just getting started. With the great momentum we already have, I think the best is yet to come.”