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Special Report ­
Information Technology

 April 1997



The Case of the Long-Distance Learner

photo of tv class

A satellite-TV course in wireless communications. Virginia Tech is experiencing growing demand for its televised wireless courses.

Thanks to high-speed data and phone lines, the Internet and multimedia computers, many students across the country now take courses from professors they never see face to face. They watch lectures from remote sites, or download lectures and assignments over the Internet; and correspond with classmates and faculty by Email, list servers and chat groups.

Called cyber education, virtual college or Internet U, such offerings are lauded as a way to reach distant students, or derided as high-tech correspondence courses. Either way, distance-learning programs are proliferating around the country and are stirring a controversy that reaches to the very definition of the university.

Duke University soon will graduate its first executive MBA class from its virtual business school. Purdue and Ohio University also have Internet-based MBA programs for executives. Virginia Tech's own CyberSchool is growing, offering courses including biology, computer science and electrical engineering.

Some of these programs have required residential on-campus time; others have no on-campus requirement. What they all have in common is their attempt to reach students who, because of jobs, location, or other constraints, cannot take courses in a traditional classroom at a defined time.

"In 10 years, cybercolleges will definitely be part of mainstream education," said Pam Dixon in a March 10 article in Newsweek. Dixon is the author of the book Virtual College. "There's no escaping it."

In some extreme scenarios, cybercolleges could become the main form of education. Management guru Peter Drucker, in a March 10 Forbes article, stated that "the college won't survive as a residential institution."

In a thought-provoking white paper developed several years ago, Professor Harold Kurstedt (ISE) suggested that eventually communications or entertainment companies such as The Disney Co. and Turner, will become the major providers of educational material development and delivery. These companies, whose mission statements include providing education, could develop and provide course and program packages that are well presented by the world's best lecturers. "These companies plan to play a role, and they will," he said, "whether we like it or not." University professors would provide expansion, explanation, integration, laboratories, and studios, while the universities provide the certification - or the curriculum needed for a degree.

In Kurstedt's scenario, engineering professionals would need regular updating throughout their career in order to remain competitive. Universities should establish a covenant with their undergraduate students to partner with them throughout their life to update them as needed.

How feasible are these scenarios? What is the current technology? How effective is it for engineering education?

To date, there are no complete engineering degree programs offered over the Internet from accredited universities. However, many schools are developing Internet-based courses, such as a C++ course the Department is offering over the Internet in the spring '97 semester.

The State of the Technology

"Distance learning works for graduate courses in engineering," commented Professor Scott Midkiff. "We've done it since 1984 with our satellite TV courses to many locations in Virginia." Midkiff, a networks expert, headed up an interuniversity team that explored electronic connectivity solutions for remote learning. The team was part of the eight-university Southeastern University and College Coalition for Engineering Education (SUCCEED) sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"The problem with the satellite links is that they are expensive and you are tied to the time slots available," he continued. "We're looking for less expensive ways to deliver these courses and reach the working engineers that need our courses to stay current in their field."

Midkiff described several alternatives to satellite delivery, including Net.Work.Virginia - a new statewide ATM network provided by Bell Atlantic, Sprint and others - and desktop video conferencing over the Internet. "If the Internet had the capacity, location would make no difference," he said. "At very little additional cost, we could be delivering lectures directly to the desktop in the workplace."

"Our teaching style in engineering is predominantly lecture-based with some student interaction. This lends itself to video delivery," he explained. "Describing combinational logic design is much different than discussing the history of World War II or political science, where there is more potential for interaction."

According to work by the SUCCEED connectivity group, desktop videoconferencing has promise, but is not feasible at this time for an entire engineering course. In one demonstration of the current state of the art, the team arranged for a guest lecturer in Oregon to "visit" Midkiff's Telecommunications Networks class in Blacksburg by transmitting two-way video, two-way audio and lecture slides over an ISDN line.

The lecture was received very well by the class. "However, it's probably better not to do every lecture that way. The voice and graphics were good, but the video was just usable... a course delivered that way all semester would not be very satisfying. It is, however, an effective way to tap into industry expertise," Midkiff concluded.

In another desktop videoconferencing trial, the University of Florida and Virginia Tech shared two lectures over the Internet for graduate-level courses in computer networks. Again the video quality was not good. "This showed the potential of lecture sharing if faculty members have different expertise. However, when you're trying to deal with the lower quality video image, it's troublesome and tiring."

Three groups of students were studied to examine the effectiveness of the presentation: those that saw the live lecture, those that saw Internet-delivered video in a standard classroom, and those that received the lecture on a workstation via the Internet. "The students with the live lecture scored best, the video students second and the workstation students last," Midkiff reported. "However, there was no significant difference in the scores."

The Question of Appropriate Use

Midkiff cautioned that although the group is exploring the technology for distance learning, the techniques do not apply to all courses or all students. "One of the myths is that these techniques can be applied to all classes at all levels. To be out on your own and taking a class by TV or Internet takes a lot of responsibility on the part of students. It requires the maturity and motivation of graduate students versus first- and second-year undergraduates," he said.

Professor Jim Armstrong and several other TV course veterans agree. "Learning is interpersonal," Armstrong said. "You can't replace the classrooms and the interaction between people...The one place [distance learning] makes sense is in adult education. When I teach on TV, my students come in at night. They're highly motivated and organized. They don't need coddling and they do fine."

The Department's experience with distance learning is predominantly through synchronous courses, where the professor and students interact at the same time. Many courses across the country are now being developed for asynchronous learning, where the student chooses the time and place for learning, and does not interact with the professor in real time.

"Although there are some courses that lend themselves to being delivered that way, I would have problems with asynchronous learning replacing synchronous," commented Midkiff. "You need some degree of live question and answer. You need the excitement that an individual can provide either by video or in person. In my opinion, asynchronous courses would not be as good as from a live instructor," he said.

"I think that distance learning has been less than successful and is fairly overrated," said Professor Charles Bostian, winner of several prestigious teaching awards. "Distance learning at the bottom is just learning from a book. It's nothing but a correspondence course delivered electronically. Teaching is a human exchange, and we are here to teach the engineering thought process" he continued. "If I'm not with my students, how can I tell if they are understanding? My reward is seeing the dawn of understanding on a student's face."

Bradley Nelson, a graduate student taking the Department's experimental Internet-based C++ course agrees that it is very much like a correspondence course. However, he appreciates the flexibility in working from home or while traveling for his job. "Taking an [asynchronous] Internet class is essentially the same as taking a correspondence course," he said. "The major difference is that it has the credibility of Virginia Tech rather than the cachet of Matchbook Cover Diploma Mill," he said.

Other issues involve the investment in producing distance learning courses, and even labor/management concerns between universities and faculties.

"For many of these Internet-based efforts, it seems we're giving up a lot, said Midkiff. "There is a huge effort to develop the content - even doing a mediocre job requires a huge effort. It's not clear what the benefits are."

The time involved is emphasized by many faculty members throughout the College. "There is a lot of fixed investment in asynchronous courses - not dissimilar to writing textbooks, which were the first version of asynchronous learning," said Professor Mike Vorster, associate dean of research and graduate studies for the College. "If your field is rapidly changing, then there are very significant ongoing investments in writing many, many editions of this constantly changing text. You can do it," he said. "You just have to consider the very significant investment involved."

"Many of the people pushing the use of technology in learning are not technologists, but instead are infatuated with technology," commented Bostian. "Sometimes I feel that the University is trying to replace the faculty with technology. It's going to become a labor/management issue."

Many of these issues will need to be resolved as universities and students continue to explore the uses of distance learning. Universities will need to reconcile the need to reach and update working professionals with their traditional emphasis on faculty/student interaction. Perhaps the question can be summed up by two differing opinions between a full-time professional in 1997 and the poetic words of a 19th century philosopher and educator.

"This is an idea whose time has come, and not a moment too soon, either. Advanced education, continuing education, and professional development are keys to success in today's world of explosive information growth. The flexibility of being able to take classes from accredited universities electronically while working full time is a blessing," said Nelson.

"The general principles of any study you may learn from books at home; but the detail, the color, the tone, the air, the life which makes it lie in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already," said John Henry Cardinal Newman in his 1856 University Sketches.

The Bradley Department of Electrical Engineering
Virginia Tech

Last Updated, June 10, 1997
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