PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo APRIL 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 8
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT - Distance education has made great strides 
and takes many forms, both on and off campus. - By Nancy Shute - Illustration by Isabelle Cardinal

In the past decade, universities around the world have embraced distance learning as a way to increase student enrollment without having to build more lecture halls and dorms. The notion has great appeal for working students and parents, and employers love the fact that their staff members can advance their education without disrupting the workday..

That comes as no surprise to schools of engineering. Who, after all, is better equipped to apply technology to human endeavor than engineers? “Technology is moving at a very rapid pace, and the rate of change is accelerating,” says Paul Peercy, dean of the University of Wisconsin’s School of Engineering, which launched a much-praised distance learning master’s program for mid-career professionals in 1999. “The advances in information technology have a lot to do with driving distance learning. There are enormous advantages, especially in today’s increasingly global environment, where scientists, engineers and managers are traveling around the world.”

But as the field has exploded, moving far beyond the old model of dropping videotapes into the mailbox, questions arise as to whether students can get as good an education without interacting with professors and their fellow students. That question is particularly relevant for engineering students, for whom strong communications skills are especially important. Distance learning veterans say the quality of the program’s output is directly related to the quality of the input. “We’ve got some people who put an incredible amount of effort in it and produce a sparkling product,” says Frank Burris, who directs the engineering program at the University of California-Los Angeles’s extension program. “But I spent an hour in a meeting this morning talking about someone who has been scribbling handwritten lecture notes and scanning those and putting them on the Web. It looks terrible. We’re dealing with that problem now.”

Indeed, for many schools, including UCLA and Stanford, the trend in distance education has not been so much toward coming up with fancy new technology to deliver lectures halfway around the world. Instead, it’s been expanding partnerships with corporations eager to offer professional education to their employees at competitive prices. In this growing market, “distance education” means the instructor gets in the car and drives a good distance on the freeway. Stanford’s Professional Education Unit, launched in 1999, now enrolls more than 6,000 students a year through their employers. And at UCLA, although online engineering courses remain a large part of the university’s extension offerings, with about 10 of the 120 online courses each quarter, Burris estimates that more than half of his department’s revenue comes from on-site delivery of short courses to companies in the region. “Probably six years ago, 90 percent of those short courses were public offerings on campus,” he says. “Today, 75 percent of them are on-site delivery.”

Still, a number of schools not only continue to offer true distance learning, but they’re also coming up with novel efforts to solve the biggest problem in the field—the lack of interaction between instructor, student and peers. “We’ve learned there’s no silver bullet,” says Greg Moses, associate dean for research and graduate programs in the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin. A researcher in nuclear fusion, Moses got drawn into distance learning in the late 1990s when he received a National Science Foundation grant to develop new methods for using the Internet. “It seemed like video was going to become the killer app.” Along with John Strikwerda, a professor of computer science, he created eTEACH, a software package that includes streaming video of a professor’s lecture, slides, a table of contents and relevant Web links. They first used it to teach an introductory undergraduate computer science course in 2000, and Moses now uses it with a computer science course he co-teaches. Students watch lectures on their own time, and the 40-plus hours of classroom time are used for small-group, problem-solving labs. “My focus has been how to make better use of the one hour I have students face-to-face.”

Benefits to the eTEACH model, Moses says, are that lectures are half as long as they are in the classroom—evidently professors don’t play to the gallery when they’re staring at a camera lens instead of 300 sleepy faces. Students can take 50-second jumps back to review points they didn’t get. But the Wisconsin group also found that students learn the material better than they do in a solely classroom environment only if they are sufficiently motivated. For undergraduates, they found, that requires weekly quizzes. “Where students are basically forced to watch this stuff, we did see some improvement,” Moses says.

Moses is now experimenting with another tool he hopes will help the bewildered or bored undergraduate—concept mapping. With undergraduate education, there’s a huge gap between novice and expert. The expert—the professor—realizes how all the topics in a subject fit together. “The novice doesn’t see things that way, they don’t glob stuff together as a macro concept,” Moses says. Basing the notion on research in cognitive psychology, Moses and colleagues around the country are now using an NSF grant to create software that would let professors write their lectures into a flow chart-like graphical format. Students could click and browse among the nodes as they please. “You’ve got big things, and you’ve got little things, and you can connect them all,” Moses says. He hopes to have the program up and running in a year.

Distance learning veterans say motivation is much less of an issue with mid-career engineers returning to school to pick up a master’s degree. “In over five years, there’s only been one student we’ve lost as a dropout,” says Wayne Pferdehirt, director of Wisconsin’s Master’s of Engineering in Professional Practice (MEPP) program. The program has 144 graduates from across the country. Pferdehirt credits several factors for the program’s success, including the fact that 30 students enter the program each fall and follow a fixed curriculum for the next two years together. “They’re able to connect very deeply, and the level of support they provide to each other is incredible,” he says. The college has hired a full-time counselor who works only with the distance enrollees. And students also attend a one-week session on campus each summer. Wisconsin has since launched a second distance master’s program, this one in engine systems. Students there are tackling a wide range of topics; some are designing lawnmower engines for Briggs & Stratton, others work with diesel engines for ships. “It lets them study with other engineers who are passionate about engines,” Pferdehirt says.

Bricks & Clicks

Perhaps no school of engineering offers students a more diverse menu of distance options than the Georgia Institute of Technology. Georgia Tech is using distance learning technology to serve professionals like those in Wisconsin’s MEPP program, and it’s also using it to connect students and instructors scattered across the state of Georgia. Students can sit in a state-of-the-art “smart” classroom and participate in real-time discussions with fellow students halfway across the Atlanta campus—or across the state at another university. Sometimes the lectures originate from the institute’s new satellite campus in Savannah, four hours away, with the Atlanta students becoming the distance learners. Sometimes the other students are in France or Singapore. And sometimes the lectures are beamed not from a fancy videoconferencing system but from a single camera in a professor’s cramped office.

At other times, undergrads view class sessions from streaming servers on the campus network or lope into the library to borrow a videotape. Grad students download a class session onto their laptops so they can catch up while on a business trip. This variety of venues is the result of the latest trend in “bricks and clicks” education, in which students both off-campus and on rely on distance learning technologies to listen to lectures, network with peers and consult with professors. “We want to be able to do this from any classroom to any student, whether or not they’re in a nicely equipped classroom in Savannah, in their dorm room or on a cell phone with no video capability at all,” says Joel Jackson, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, who has been heavily involved in developing Georgia Tech’s distance learning program.

The goal, bluntly, is also to make distance learning as good as a live classroom lecture. “It’s not enough to focus on a faithful representation of what’s going on in the room,” Jackson says. “We want to use the technology that’s available now, which has really blossomed in the past few years, to really do better than what’s happening live.” Beyond that, Georgia Tech officials hope to use that technology to improve the learning experience for all their students, wherever they’re located.

“I work at Qualcomm, doing DSP architecture,” says Erich Plondke, who is working on a master’s in electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech and is one of about 500 distance learning graduate students there. “The distance learning program allows me to travel for work and doesn’t interrupt the workday with a trip to campus.” In fact, Plondke, who got his undergraduate degree from the school in 2001, had applied for an on-campus grad program. Then Qualcomm transferred him to Austin, Texas. The move didn’t disrupt his academic plans one bit. He receives videotapes of lectures in the mail twice a week. Homework is downloaded from a class Web page, then faxed to the university’s distance learning center or e-mailed to the professor or TA. Tests are mailed to a proctor, then mailed or faxed back. Although Plondke likes going back to Atlanta, it’s to visit friends or take in a football game, not to schmooze with professors. Most of his fellow distance grad students have never set foot on campus. And they say that what they miss by not being there—networking opportunities, the chance to clarify a fuzzy point in a lecture on the spot—is more than compensated for by the convenience of being able to time-shift academic chores to fit into a demanding professional schedule.

“I needed to get the master’s knocked out,” says Georgia Tech student Chad Ryther, “but I’m with the Air Force, and I didn’t have the opportunity to do it full time.” So he went to the local library, got an old copy of U.S. News & World Report and went down the list of engineering schools. When he called Georgia Tech, he says, “the next thing I knew they were saying, ‘Please hold for the dean.’ He really knew what my needs were. That’s the kind of customer service I’m looking for. They understand that people are trying to get something done.”

Ryther, who does flight testing for the Air Force, is particularly pleased when lectures show up on a CD-ROM with Powerpoint slides and a small headshot of the professor talking. “You can sit at home with your computer, you can take it to work on your laptop or you can travel with it,” he says. “If you don’t hear what he said, you can rewind it.” But getting access to professors, he says, is not so simple. It’s not that the professors aren’t available by phone or e-mail. “My current professor said to call him at home, up till midnight. That’s dedication.” Rather, it’s just finding the time to call in a busy workday. “The quality of the teaching is extremely high,” says Ryther, who graduated from the Air Force Academy. “These are some of the best professors I’ve ever had.”

One downside, students say, is the lack of networking opportunities with other students, although they’re also amazed at the friendships they’ve developed with classmates they’ve never seen, only communicated with via e-mail, teleconferences and chats. “Those are the people you’re not afraid to call at 11 p.m. on a Friday night and say, ‘What did you get for No.3?’” says Jennifer Schwerman, who is working on a master’s in mechanical engineering. Schwerman says she misses the chance to ask a question immediately when there’s a sticking point in the lecture. Still, she says, the flexibility has made it possible for her to complete her degree in six semesters while working on propulsion technologies for GE Research in New York. She advises students who are considering distance programs to check out the distance learning program office. “That’s a big determining factor in how easy the process is going to be. They’re the ones who help you through, and they’re the ones who determine how quickly you get the materials.”

George Tech is considering new technologies to improve the nuts and bolts of distance education, such as compressed video feeds sent via the Internet, which are cheaper than mailing DVDs. Many students can’t download lectures because of bandwidth and firewall issues. Many others no longer have VCRs, meaning the university is sending more DVDs (which cost between $2 and $3 to reproduce, versus less than $1 for a videotape). Another notion is “telepresence”—an enhanced video image taped with multiple cameras that would allow students to change their point of view to get a better view of the whiteboard, for instance, or to “move” the professor away.

Some of their most intriguing experiments, however, focus as much on the students on campus as off—“distributed” learning rather than “distance” learning. “There seems to be a mindset with distance learning that you have someone learning by themselves—the online version of a correspondence course,” says Lonnie Harvel, associate director of the institute’s Arbutus Center for Distributed Engineering Education. But many of Georgia Tech’s distance classes are synchronous—33 for undergraduates, 64 for graduate students—with students watching the professor and each other and asking questions live. “We probably have one of the largest video conferencing systems in the nation with our synchronous classes,” says George Wright, assistant director of the distance learning center.

Starting in 1997, Georgia Tech has been taping and banking on the Web more than 3,000 lectures from more than 100 courses. They have found that students on campus spend more time with a taped lecture than they do with a live class, playing some sections over and over. “We can even go to a professor and say, ‘Do you realize that everyone keeps going back to this one section? It’s either extremely interesting or very confusing.’” Professors use the archive to review their lectures—and to see how their colleagues teach a subject.

They’re also testing a system to improve the value and utility of lecture notes. “When students become most engaged in the material, they stop taking notes,” Harvel says. The “embedded access” system allows students to search their notes for key terms on a handheld or a laptop, which then connects to an online database. “Now you go back and look at your notes, and it’s connected to the lecture. You can also click a button and it will include all the notes of the professor. If you’re not a good notetaker, you can still get the message.”

Tom Barnwell, another professor of electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech, says that “distance learning is anything past the second row.” “I laugh about it, but it’s really true,” Jackson says. “There’s as much to be gained for the students in the classroom as for students elsewhere. The goal is to make sure they have the same educational experience. Whether it comes in the same form is beside the point.”

Nancy Shute is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


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