Three years ago Tricia Stokes, an Army security officer, was looking for a way to advance, but figured she needed a college degree. The only problem was she didn't have time for classes.
What was there for her to do?
She found her answer in Howard Community College's telecourse program, which gives students a way to complete courses while limiting their visits to campus.
Telecourse students study on their own, using textbooks, study guides and 30-minute course-related television programs shown on cable and PBS stations.
They also can rent the course videos from the College Video Corp. for $50 per course, or borrow them from HCC's library.
Next month, HCC will become part of the College of the Air Consortium, which will bring together two- and four-year institutions around the state, Northern Virginia and southern Pennsylvania.
These colleges will have their telecourse programs broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service.
The PBS program called "Going the Distance" will allow students to earn a two-year associate's degree, said Jacques Dubois, the project's national director.
This program changes the emphasis from providing individual courses, said Mr. Dubois, director of Prince George's Community College's telecourse program.
"Going the Distance" will improve distance learning programs, he said. More than 15,000 Maryland students enroll in telecourse programs each year.
"['Going the Distance'] will cut back on their commuting time and allow them to study when it's most convenient for them," Mr. Dubois said.
Ms. Stokes, 35, said she plans to get her bachelor of science degree in management studies from the University of Maryland at College Park next summer.
JoAnn Hawkins, HCC's telecourse program coordinator, said the 20-year-old program is ideal for older students who work full-time or have family responsibilities.
"It allows them to learn at their own pace with some kind of structure," she said. "That's the beauty of telecourses, people can adjust studying to their schedule."
Doug Whitcomb, 38, transferred his two years of telecourse credits to Towson State University. He expects to receive his bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1996.
He serviced X-ray equipment for 15 years, then was laid off. Now he studies and stays at home to watch his 3- and 5-year-old sons. He said he had given up on becoming a college student until he found out about telecourses.
"I never had a clue any kind of structure would be set up like this. I'm so tickled with being able to get through school," said Mr. Whitcomb.
Mary Troutman, 49, who is taking an introductory political science class, is new to the program.
"It's a luxury to have telecourses," said the mother of 12- and 14-year-old daughters.
She lives in Harper's Choice Village and expects to receive a bachelor's degree in social work next year from the University of Maryland at Baltimore County.
"[Telecourses] give people flexibility. They can work when they can, but they have to be focused," said Ms. Troutman, an instructional assistant in Howard County schools.
Ms. Troutman said the television shows add another dimension to learning. "What you get off the printed page never has the impact you can get from a documentary or a video," she said.
Larry Madaras, a history professor at HCC for 25 years and a frequent telecourse instructor, said the programs have improved.
"They are technologically better. There's a lot of on-site camera work. They may go to Jamestown or an auction block to illustrate a lesson about slavery," he said. "A lot of news clips are used, and experts are interviewed."
Still, he prefers to teach in a classroom.
"Some people think [telecourse] is the wave of the future. I don't," said Mr. Madaras, who likens telecourse to "self-study."
"I don't think this will ever replace the teacher in the classroom."