Distance learning

A dental education delivered to your doorstep

Unlike most first-year students at Tufts, this group won’t spend this fall visiting Fenway Park, sampling the city’s restaurants or heading north for leaf-peeping. They all headed home after 10 days. But the seven students in the School of Dental Medicine’s distance education program—the first of its kind in the world—will remain in constant communication with the school and each other as they earn their M.S. degrees from their homes in three states and three countries overseas.

Guided by Dara Mehta, the first seven students in the dental school’s distance learning program test out their video-conferencing capabilities. On screen is Dr. Noshir Mehta, who’s heading the program. © VITO ALUIA

Their degree work is in craniofacial pain and temporomandibular joint disorder, often an extremely painful condition caused by displacement of the cartilage where the lower jaw connects to the skull.

Under the guidance of Dr. Noshir Mehta, professor and chair of general dentistry and director of the Craniofacial Pain Center, the distance learners will adhere to the same strict standards as the Boston-based students. The students, who left Boston on September 21, will return to campus next April to defend their thesis protocols and get a week of hands-on training. Over the next two years, they will return to the dental school each September and April, while continuing to work long distance on their theses with their faculty advisors.

Technology—not to mention the tireless organizational efforts of program coordinator Dara Mehta, married to Noshir Mehta for 28 years—makes it all possible. When the dentists from India, Italy, Canada, Idaho, Indiana and Florida arrived at One Kneeland Street on September 12, they received laptops fully loaded with all the software their coursework will require. They were also given 30 CDs containing course-related video and slideshow presentations produced by Dr. Leopoldo Correa, an instructor at the pain center.

Dara Mehta worked with a team organized by David Kahle, head of academic technology on the Medford/Somerville campus, and a consultant to create a virtual classroom online. During their tightly scheduled 10 days in Boston, the students had a crash course in using the resulting web-based interface through which they will complete assignments and communicate with each other and their instructors. The distance learners will be able to discuss homework and research questions in online forums. They will even be able to speak to each other in real time via the Internet, using a free conference call program called Skype.

“Most of us didn’t even have PCs when we were in dental school,” says Dr. Bill Pantazes, D90, who’ll remain at his Florida practice while he participates in the program.

Dara Mehta began developing the program in January 2004. In 20 months, she identified the coursework, oversaw the design of the web environment, prepared the faculty, selected the class and helped the incoming students secure visas and financial aid. One of the new students, Dr. Nino Fraulini from Modena, Italy, agreed to use his dental practice as a test site during the program’s development.

“There was no model for a program like this,” says Dara Mehta. “Everything from the broad ideas to the finest details had to be created for a whole new learning modality. I often felt like a master rug weaver. I had a vision for the pattern I wanted at the end—even knew the various designs—but every thread that would appear had to be put in the perfect place to create the end result.”

The distance learning program originally was intended to make it easier for dentists overseas to earn their M.S. degrees without having to relocate to the United States for several years, as Noshir Mehta did in 1969, when he closed his dental practice in India to come to Tufts for postgraduate education.

“Tufts’ dental school has always been a leader in the international continuing education arena,” says Noshir Mehta. “Over the years as we have lectured in different countries, dentists have often reflected on how much they would have loved to get a master’s degree from Tufts but couldn’t take the time away from their busy practices and family life. This program has been our answer to bring Tufts to the dentist.”

“In my country, they don’t teach this subject,” says Dr. Sandesh Mayekar, who lives and practices in Mumbai, India. Dr. Jean-Guy Violette of New Brunswick, Canada, says, “There are tons of day-long continuing education programs for dentists. But there is a real lack of degree-granting programs.”

When an advertisement for the Tufts program ran in a professional journal, the Mehtas were surprised by the number of American dentists seeking admission. “The domestic outpouring has been tremendous,” Dara Mehta says. “So there is a great need within our country, too.”

“I have five kids,” says Dr. Dave Peters of Michigan City, Ind. “I couldn’t sell my practice and move my wife and kids.”

In addition to getting comfortable with their virtual classroom, the distance learners also had the chance to meet each other and the faculty—the most important reason the students will come to the Boston campus twice a year. “It’s all about community,” Dara Mehta says. “I think this group formed a tight bond.”

Jacqueline Mitchell is a senior health sciences writer in Tufts' Office of Publications. She can be reached at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu.