For business professor, summer school is simply wild

September 6 2006

With a steaming mug of joe, bear in the backyard, mountains in the distance and laptop humming, professor William Wilhelm starts teaching Business Report Writing 336 from his summer office, which just happens to be 4,000 miles away from his students and his regular digs at Indiana State University.

This summer, Wilhelm, an associate professor of business education, information and technology at ISU, was able to teach a class, hold interactive office hours with his students, and continue his business ethics instruction research, all from the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.

"I can make the office hours interesting by showing them my beautiful forest; by showing them my beautiful cabin; and as soon as the salmon start running, by showing them a big, beautiful salmon," Wilhelm said.

"There's nothing like sleeping in a wilderness where grizzly bears walk. When you lay your head down on your bedroll, you know that you're not on the top of the food chain. There's a lot of fun in that."

Making office hours and class sessions engaging and unique is Wilhelm's method of teaching.

"If I can make my office hours interesting enough for students to show up, once we do some of the informal things and have some fun with it, we can learn something, too," he said.

Wilhelm began his love affair with Alaska 15 years ago, and after continual visits to explore the Alaskan wilderness by kayak, hiking and backpacking, he bought a piece of land in a forest between the towns of Soldotna and Sterling, about 140 miles south of Anchorage.

[me ] Two years ago, with the help of a friend and do-it-yourself construction books, he built a cabin, and just recently installed electricity, phone lines and DSL Internet. Now, with its modern updates, Wilhelm can teach distance-learning students about researching, understanding and writing business reports; and conduct office hours via Web cam.

"Any instructor who's doing distance education knows how many extra hours you put into online learning," Wilhelm said. "But I can be sitting at my window in Alaska, looking out into this beautiful, green forest, and it's a little more relaxing and rejuvenating than looking out into the College of Business parking lot."

Spending his summers expanding his own knowledge amid the splendor of Alaska helps Wilhelm keep up his enthusiasm for teaching.

"In the ocean, when a whale swims under your kayak and the waters start boiling around you, that gets your heart going and that's exciting. It's not living life on the edge necessarily, but living life to its fullest," he said.

Some would worry the distance between Wilhelm and his students in Terre Haute would affect the students' learning, but by responding to questions promptly and making information readily available on the Internet, Wilhelm dodged all such problems.

Stuart Tracy, a junior marketing major who took Wilhelm's summer class, said the mileage between teacher and student made no difference in his class experience.

"I am still a little awed by the fact that my professor was 4,000 miles away while teaching the class, but that fact didn't affect my learning," he said. "Dr. Wilhelm was ready to answer any e-mail and discussion board questions very quickly."

This course, and any distance-learning course, is helpful to many students, especially non-traditional students because they can log onto the course after they have worked at a full-time or part-time job.

"We have a lot of non-traditional students at Indiana State," Wilhelm said, "Distance learning affords them benefits that help them along in their lives."

Rachel Williams, a junior accounting major from Bridgeport, Ill. takes a business report writing class taught by William Wilhelm, associate professor of business education, information and technology, from his cabin in Alaska.
Tracy is one such student.

"This course was a benefit to me because it allowed me the flexibility to be a house dad and a student without utilizing any type of day care for my daughter," Tracy said. "In other words, I could stay at home and be in class at the same time."

Along with teaching a class over the Internet, Wilhelm has been able to work on his research project funded by a grant from ISU's Promising Scholars program, which supports up-and-coming educators who have demonstrated their commitment to meaningful research and real-world learning opportunities for students.

Wilhelm is conducting a series of studies to identify effective teaching methods of business ethics for professors who have not been formally trained in that area.

"The problem with teaching business ethics in a business class is that the professors are not business ethicists," Wilhelm said. "They're accounting professors, or management professors, or marketing professors."

Wilhelm said he thinks all people have a sense of ethics, and business professors have the ability to teach ethics by using real-world cases.

"My Promising Scholars grant will afford me the opportunity to try different approaches in different content courses to find the right combination of ethical reasoning, and decision-making and content to effect a change," Wilhelm said.

While in Alaska, Wilhelm said he was unable to do any testing for his ethics research with students face-to-face, but he did use his time to do research on what other professors in business ethics education are doing by reading numerous scholarly journal articles - all available online.

"A lot of research effort is put into finding out what other people have done, rather than reinventing the wheel," Wilhelm said, "and to build on their knowledge."

Summers in Alaska have allowed Wilhelm to capture the imaginations of his students, as he shares wilderness experiences with them and encourages them to explore the world. And when the work is done, he can post a "Gone fishing" out-of-office e-mail, and capture some tasty salmon too.

Contact: William Wilhelm, BEIT program coordinator, Indiana State University, (812) 237-2076,

Writer: Megan Anderson, media relations, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3773,

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Story Highlights

William Wilhelm, associate professor of business education, spends his summers doing online research and teaching via distance education from a remote cabin in Alaska. Just as students often do better in class when they become excited about their education, Wilhelm - an ISU Promising Scholar - says the setting helps him renew his zest for life and teaching.

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