Distance learning

Dental school explores educational partnerships with India

In 1969, Dr. Noshir R. Mehta, a 24-year-old dentist in India, decided to travel to Boston to study with Dr. Irving Glickman, renowned as “the father of periodontology.” Enrolling at Tufts School of Dental Medicine for his postgraduate education, however, meant closing up his practice in India.

“It wasn’t too bad because I was very young then, and in India, it’s not good to be a young practitioner,” he said, shrugging off what must have been a difficult choice.

Dr. Noshir Mehta © Mark Morelli

Mehta, K73, D77, now professor and chair of general dentistry at Tufts, never regretted the decision, but, he said, “It piqued my interest in trying to do what we are doing now: making it easier to access an American dental education.”

To that end, Mehta and Dr. Lonnie H. Norris, the dean of the dental school, spent a hectic but fruitful two weeks in January exploring possible collaborations with dental and medical schools throughout India. Their aim was to increase recognition of the Tufts name throughout the country, foster collaborative research and set up long-distance continuing education programs that provide international dentists with an easier route to a Tufts postgraduate certificate or degree.

International partnerships
That means that unlike Mehta and many others like him, Indian dentists won’t have to shut down their practices while they spend two or three years in the United States earning their postgraduate degrees, even if they can afford to do so.

“The average Indian dentist does not have the means to travel but has a great need for American dental education,” Mehta said.

International partnerships are nothing new for Tufts dental school, which has offered continuing education programs in Austria and Italy for years. Last year, the school added the flexibility of videoconferencing technology to its course on dental occlusion and craniofacial function. Half of the course was conducted in Boston, and half, via real-time, interactive video, with students in Japan on one screen and students in Austria on another. The time difference (six and a half hours for Austria, 12 for Japan) meant that the Tufts lecturers had to start their day at 4 a.m., but the schedule still meant less wear and tear on faculty than flying overseas.

The option of distance learning is more than just convenience. Postgraduate programs in general have had trouble attracting students from other countries since September 11, 2001, Mehta said, because prospective students have had more difficulty obtaining visas or are concerned about the safety of living in the United States.

Distance delivery
“This is another way of delivering a product,” Mehta said. “This is the way that most schools around the country are really looking at delivery of education.”

The school’s most ambitious delivery will come later this year. In September, seven students from as near as Indiana and as far as India will begin the Dental Distance Learning Master of Science Program. They will be issued laptops loaded with everything they need to use interactive web coursework and lectures on CD. They will still spend time in Boston for research, thesis development and certain hands-on requirements, but only a fraction of the usual geographical commitment.

Pursuing relationships in India made perfect sense, said Norris, because India’s interest in oral health care and advancing standards has made it a top emerging market for postgraduate dental education.

He also pointed out that Mehta’s contacts from his student days in India assured them that Tufts could pick and choose the best universities to work with. In fact, their meetings with the health department in Mumbai were arranged by Mehta’s brother, Dr. Keiki Mehta, the preeminent eye surgeon in India and the honorary ophthalmic surgeon to the governor of the State of Maharashtra.

Six-school tour
On their trip, Mehta and Norris met with administrators at six public and private dental schools and government health officials in Delhi, Mumbai and the remote city of Dharwad. Although little surrounds Dharwad (“It’s in the middle of no place,” Mehta attests) and cows roam the roads, it is home to a large, well-funded dental college that serves a vast rural population.

“Instead of redeveloping a new curriculum by themselves, they would rather do it with the Tufts name attached to it. It will attract more students for them and for us,” Mehta said.

Tuft also plans to collaborate on research with some of the Indian schools. For Tufts researchers, it will provide access to broader populations that will enrich studies on public health, oral surgery, pathology and epidemiology.

Tufts’ expertise will also help the Indian schools to develop clinics and treatment programs for underprivileged, underserved populations. One of the schools has already tapped Tufts for its aptitude in treating patients with cleft lip and cleft palate.

Mehta and Norris were representing more than the dental school on their trip. They were paving the way for a visit this November by the Tufts International Board of Overseers.