Online educator establishes scholarship for distance learners

David DiBiase, who has been teaching GIS-related courses at Penn State for decades, established the Founders Scholarship Fund to aid distance learners. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

It didn’t take a global pandemic for David DiBiase to understand the value or impact of distance learning. As one of the pioneers of online instruction at Penn State, he watched for three decades as programs offered through the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute broadly expanded access to education.

The geographic information systems (GIS) educator who created some of Penn State World Campus’ first courses on the topic has long been helping adult learners in their quest to advance in their careers or pivot to begin new ones. 

Now, by establishing the Founders Scholarship Fund — the first of its kind available to distance learners at Penn State — he’s helping students with the financial means to do so. Already, the $100,000 gift is providing assistance to four distance learners. 

“It’s called the Founders Scholarship Fund because of my gratitude to John Dutton, Eric Barron and my teammates who created and advanced the Dutton Institute,” said DiBiase, who was founding director of the institute. “The scholarship is really an act of appreciation for the opportunities that I don’t believe I would have gotten anywhere else. But it’s also to build an endowment base and a scholarship fund that’s broad based and available to these great students.”

When distance learning began, there were few funding options. Federal grants and loans, a major funding source for traditional students, weren’t even available. That changed, DiBiase said, as distance learning proved its worth. But scholarships and endowments haven’t kept pace. He’s hoping his efforts will change that.

“Our college’s distance learners are typically adults who are juggling careers, families, elder care and a whole host of other life challenges while pursuing their education,” said Ann Taylor, assistant dean for distance learning and director of the Dutton Institute. “Financial constraints are often cited as an education barrier for these individuals. This incredible gift will provide a much-needed means for many to be able to reach their goals.”

DiBiase said he’s constantly inspired by his students who are often juggling families, jobs and other duties. Among his current students are an accomplished lawyer seeking a new career as a GIS educator and a woman who’s earning her degree while battling breast cancer.

Helping students like this, he said, was the goal when courses began in the late 1990s. Since then, the scope of distance learning has expanded to include a wide range of students, and the Dutton Institute now plays a role in residential learning.

“The real contribution of online learning is that we’ve broadened the market for education beyond traditional undergraduates and traditional graduate students to a whole community of lifelong learners,” DiBiase said. “We’ve created an opportunity for people to truly learn forever. And the fact that the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences is a leader in that at Penn State is something I’m really proud of.”

DiBiase became an educator at Penn State in 1989 after earning a master’s degree in cartography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He worked for the GIS company ESRI from 2011-19 while continuing to assist in some courses at Penn State.

This gift will advance “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit

Last Updated January 27, 2021