UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Winter 2000
FeaturesAlumni ProfilesClassnotesCalendarThe MailFinal WordEditor's Choice

Raising the Barre

Distance Learning

Alumni Mementos

Manic Depression


Play Ball!

Editor's note: Share your experiences with distance learning, or your thoughts on its significance, for inclusion in a follow-up article to be published in July in our electronic edition (www.buffalo.edu/ubt). Send your comments to whitcher@buffalo.edu.

Related Sites
Millard Filmore College

English 374

Library Help Guide for Distance Learners

Educational Technology Center

Peterson's Guide to Distance Learning Programs

Open University



Distance Learning

For nontraditional students, it's the wave of the future and it's here to stay

By Ann Whitcher

orking full time and taking two courses a semester toward a B.S. degree in business administration, Collette Book found distance learning the perfect solution when she discovered she was pregnant with her second child.
    Book (whose baby, at this writing, is due in a few weeks) is taking a UB human nutrition course online, visiting campus only three times a semester to take exams. Busy with her job as a sales manager for a bakery, she pursues her online studies when her husband is home to watch the couple's three-year-old son, Donovan, or after Donovan has gone to bed.
    Taking the course online has been challenging, Book reports, "because even when you're not taking notes in class, you're getting reinforcement, if subliminally, from hearing the professor lecture. In the case of an online course, it's all you. But the convenience factor is just unbelievable."
    Distance learning, particularly in its online form, does seem ideally suited to nontraditional students like Book, who may be pressed by job and family concerns yet still desirous of a degree. U.S. universities and colleges continue to attract 62 percent of high school graduates to their campuses immediately after their graduation, but an increasing number of nontraditional students-as defined by their age or position in life-are seeking degrees after the traditional college age.
    At UB, distance learning is developing at a modest rate, with faculty and administrators proceeding cautiously into new territory that, despite significant pitfalls, holds enormous promise for students who cannot, or prefer not to, take courses on campus.
    While distance learning takes various forms, online delivery holds the most potential for growth because of the accessibility of the web and the ease with which educational content can be posted and transmitted. Peterson's Guide to Distance Learning Programs 2000 lists 1,000 degree and certificate programs at nearly 900 accredited institutions that involve some form of distance learning.
    Students enrolled in an online course usually go to a website to retrieve lessons, assignments and even exams. They communicate with their teachers via e-mail, and class discussions often make use of chat rooms and message boards. Sometimes the time required to complete an online course is significantly shorter than would be the case for its campus-based counterpart. Time-pressed students often like the asynchronous benefits of many online courses-they can't be late for class, and they can do their assignments at 3 a.m., if necessary. Somewhat surprising to many observers is the fact that creating distance-learning courses "is neither less expensive nor less time consuming than traditional courses," according to George Lopos, dean of Millard Fillmore College (MFC), which offered its first distance-learning course in 1994.
    "Most new tools that address space-time problems of nontraditional learners also ease some common difficulties in traditional in-class experiences," notes David Willbern, associate vice provost and director of the university's Educational Technology Center, which offers faculty members and graduate students a place to learn how to more imaginatively incorporate new technology into their curricula and instructional methods. "Even in class, students may be distanced from course materials for various reasons: They're at the back of the lecture hall. They're tired from a job, a family, or an ‘all-nighter.' They haven't yet read the material. They have read the material but don't fully understand it.
    "New educational technology tools provide students with anytime/anywhere access to course materials," Willbern says, "so that, for example, they can review a lecture online, with an outline of the lecture notes or even a digitized audiovisual record of the instructor delivering the lecture."
    Willbern's own course on post-World War II best-sellers (http://icarus.ubetc.buffalo.edu/willbern/) demonstrates how a professor might use distance-learning tools to enhance the educational experience of traditional, in-class students. The site opens with Roy Lichtenstein pop art, then offers an easy-to-follow menu that includes course requirements, lectures and paper topics. Willbern helps his students link to websites on the various novels being treated-The Catcher in the Rye, Peyton Place, To Kill a Mockingbird-and also to the many web-based reference tools now available to today's student, including those offered by the University Libraries, which has among its vast resources an online help tool designed especially for the distance learner (http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/help/distance.html).

ith its theme of "Your World, Our Classroom," MFC(www.mfc.buffalo.edu) continues to serve the educational needs of the nontraditional student. Distance learning, an increasingly important part of MFC's programs, now entails web-based online coursework, telecourses, and interactive videoconferencing, all of which can be taken for academic credit. In the spring 2000 semester, 588 UB students were enrolled in online courses through MFC. Of this number, 58 percent were day students registered through the university's regular day division and most likely in the traditional 18- to 24-year-old age group, and 42 percent were categorized as MFC students. The latter group tends to comprise older adults, or returning students, who can range in age from the mid-20s through retirement age. Most work full time.
    "My impression is that because they work, they can't get to school when they need to take a class, so they take it via distance learning," says Jane Sinclair, MFC's interim program as sistant for instructional technology. "Most live within 15 miles of campus, but their work schedule and family obligations keep them from attending traditional classes on campus. If the class that an individual needs in order to graduate is only available on Monday and Wednesday mornings, and he or she is only available on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, it's better to take an online class."
    Online courses attract the traditional undergraduate student, too. Matthew Shelton, an honors scholar and an incoming junior and management/information systems major from Rochester, took a course online. "I liked the fact that I did not have to go to a classroom to learn something," he wrote in an e-mail. "I am a huge advocate of self-teaching, and this gave me an opportunity to exploit it. For me, the interaction with other students seems to neither enhance nor detract from my learning experience. The particular course I took did not require me to contact other students-but if I needed to, that was available."
    MFC's current distance-learning courses are all offered through conventional means, as well. Web-based offerings include courses in nutrition, health care, legal topics, public relations and writing, in addition to substantial fare in computers and technology. This method of distance learning, of course, allows students to take courses when it's most convenient for them, simply through an Internet-connected computer.
    Carla Thornton, in an article posted on CNN.com, reports thousands of online courses now available to anyone with Internet access and a PC. These include classes from such leading universities as the University of Wisconsin, Stanford University, Penn State and the University of California at Berkeley. "According to International Data Corporation, the number of people taking at least one college course over the Internet will triple by the year 2002 to about 2.2 million," Thornton states.
    Less commonplace, but a growing phenomenon, are the "virtual" universities that offer a complete degree program online, perhaps the best known of which is the University of Phoenix, with 52 campuses-actually rented office space-in 35 states. Open only to jobholders 23 years of age and older, the school bills itself as "the nation's largest private university and the leading online university"; its holding company, the Apollo Group, earned almost $500 million in revenue last year, according to a recent People magazine profile of University of Phoenix founder John Sperling.
    But online higher education does have its detractors. David F. Noble of York University, who spoke at UB this past January and authored the much-discussed journal series "Digital Diploma Mills," cautions that "online universities, distance-education programs and the like [are] now identified with this revolution in technology and have assumed the aura of innovation and the appearance of the revolution itself." That untested assumption has spawned the production of ill-conceived and unnecessary higher education information-technology programs that are "nothing more than an updated version of the correspondence school," Noble contends. On the other hand, a respected institution like Britain's Open University (www.open.ac.uk)-at the forefront of distance learning for the past 30 years-now has half of its students taking courses online.

indful of this concern, Lopos led the effort that resulted in UB's gaining membership in R1.edu (www.r1edu.org), a consortium of 26 public and private universities designated as Research I universities by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. To be included in the consortium, universities must demonstrate a commitment to the next generation, or Internet 2, of network-based distance-learning programs and materials; have a minimum number of distance-learning course/program offerings; and be a member of the Association of American Universities.
    Distance learning has tremendous potential, but it's no panacea, says Lopos, who gained extensive experience in this area as director of off-campus courses and programs at the University of Iowa. "A lot of distance learning is a testament to the abilities, the will and the tenacity of the students," he says. "All students will not learn well from distance learning; different people have different learning styles. So when people get excited about the notion of distance learning-doing away with the traditional campus-I think that's an overstatement. One of the things we've found over the years of studying distance learning-and the research is long-standing, but it varies in quality-is that there's a great deal of emphasis placed on students' motivation and discipline. And for those reasons, distance learning may not be appropriate to someone who has not yet developed those traits. Also, for traditional undergraduates, we can't underestimate the campus experience-it's part of one's individual growth."
    In planning which MFC courses will be offered through distance learning, Lopos and his staff look for the "best practices and the best research we can find on learning that does not require a campus component." Convenience, after all-the ability to incorporate education into an already busy lifestyle-was the main selling point when the first correspondence courses appeared in the 19th century, and it is convenience that continues to be the prime attraction of online distance learning.
    The downside of online learning, especially for the traditional undergraduate student, "includes tests that are more rigorous, computer glitches that eat homework, miscom- munication with professors and-perhaps most significant-isolation from peers," wrote Dan Eggen in a recent Washington Post article on the increasing appeal of online courses for college students.
    At MFC, Lopos is interested in fostering access, and this is reflected in distance-learning course planning and design. "At MFC, we've used telecourses-one of the older methods. Why? Because a lot of people have cable TV-they can learn at home. When we develop our online courses, we make sure they're very text-oriented. They are rich, and we do have links. But we try to be very sensitive to the end user."
    Of course, MFC is not the sole provider of distance-learning initiatives on campus. The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, through its participation in the SUNY consortium EngiNet-, offers busy engineering professionals the opportunity to take graduate-level courses toward a master's degree in four areas of engineering, through a videotape delivery system.

he School of Management, meanwhile, is developing an online M.B.A. program for a planned launch this fall. "This program utilizes web-based technology developed within the School of Management that enables us to synthesize the expertise of our best professors, deliver assignments to students anywhere in the world, monitor their learning and provide instant feedback on their progress," says dean Lewis Mandell. The program, which will set admission and completion standards nearly identical to those required of UB's traditional M.B.A. programs, Mandell says, will target U.S. and international companies "who want to enroll their managers in a program that can be customized to the strategic goals of their organization, and which their employees can complete independently, no matter where their job assignments may take them." While the market for online M.B.A. programs targeted to individuals is quickly becoming crowded with business schools, Mandell is confident that UB "can develop a niche in the corporate market because of our successful history of delivering executive M.B.A. programs and customized corporate-training programs all over the world."
    Within the UB School of Nursing, students based at Jamestown Community College can study for a B.S. degree through real-time telecommunications with their counterparts and teachers at UB. And, in a real coup this past semester, the university, in partnership with Stanford, created "the world's first bicoastal classroom" through a high-performance videoconferencing connection via Internet 2. In the course "Bodyworks: Medicine, Technology and the Body in the Late 20th Century," instructors Timothy Lenoir of Stanford and Bernadette Wegenstein of UB shared several teaching tools-a webpage, locally projected images and videoclips-that were projected onto a large screen in both classrooms, as well as a videoconference link reserved for discussion and spontaneous student interaction. This innovation was one of the factors cited by Yahoo! Internet Life magazine in ranking UB number 11 in a recent list of the 50 most wired universities and research schools in the United States.
    At MFC the approach is to assist faculty with the technical requirements and provide administrative and marketing support, in theory freeing the faculty to concentrate on course content. Explains Lopos: "I have a full-time instructional designer, another half-time instructional designer and a program coordinator whose responsibility is to help the faculty develop the courses. So I don't want faculty dealing with HTML-that's not the best use of their time. If they like to play with it, if that's their interest, fine. But they are the content experts; they are the people whose knowledge and skills must be transmitted. We have the professionals who are skilled in helping them make this transition.
    "And it's not merely technological. Really good instructional design is an informed way of designing your course. What kind of a test should I use? What works best in this online modality? Is true and false good enough in online testing? What kinds of checks and balances do I want?"
    In other words, planners here are trying to overcome what Sir John Daniel, vice chancellor of the Open University, has identified as a problem of many distance-learning courses. "Because of our history, we have a level of sophistication that allows us to be more cautious than those who rush in from scratch," Daniel said in a recent interview with the Guardian of London. "It sets us apart from those who just put their notes on the web and think they have a wonderful distance-learning course."
    SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of English Diane Christian, whose courses may be videotaped shortly for distance-learning purposes, voices the ambivalence that many faculty may feel about distance learning: "On the one hand, it seems to me great to widen the reach for those unable to be on campus, and to extend some of the extraordinary teaching we have to offer. On the other hand, as a filmmaker I know that just videotaping isn't really producing teaching. And as a teacher I think one of the main elements of the teaching enterprise is the real-time presence of teacher and students- being able to ask and interact is the life of it. Otherwise you can read a book.

ore and more, as we're electronically connected and ranging, we'll be able to reach into libraries, museums, data banks and maybe even classrooms. Maybe we can even interface electronically, but it doesn't replace bodies and real time for me yet."
    Teaching courses with distance-learning technology often involves some practical considerations in clearly conveying the course material. Lopos uses the example of how he thinks a course on comedy that he teaches for the English department would have to be recontoured if he were to offer it online: "When I teach it in class, I stop what I'm doing and say, ‘Now we're going to look at ...' I teach a section on parody, for instance, and in showing them parody, I show them video clips of an original and its parody. There's the learning moment-students react visibly when they understand the concept. But if I'm doing it online, I've got to structure the learning moment-how do I get this to happen again with students?"
    Given the dizzying array of online courses and degree programs now available-some of them at leading universities and colleges-why come to UB? "You choose a college or university for a variety of reasons," Lopos says. "It begins with your educational needs: Why do you want to take art history? Do you need to take it for job purposes? If so, you want to get it as quickly and conveniently as you can. Do you want it as part of your own personal development, you own personal education? Then you may want to get it from an institution for which you have a certain respect or a certain desire for its reputation. Why does someone choose to go to University X over University Y, all things being equal? Because for some reason or another you have decided that it offers something you value."
    In seeking to offer the finest quality of instruction, it is apparent that UB cannot ignore the ever-extending electronic avenues that are now open to students and faculty everywhere.
    "These new tools of educational technology are no longer the wave of the future," says David Willbern. "They're the tsunami of the present. For many of us, the options are sink, swim, or surf."

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