PRISM Magazine Online - March 2000
teaching toolbox

Students and profs alike are finding that distance education requires a different set of skills.

by Margaret Mannix

Photograph by Dave Shelley, Penn StateMichael Perez does a lot of juggling these days. A manufacturing engineer for General Motors, Perez is working toward a master's degree in mechanical and industrial engineering through a distance learning program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The convenience factor can't be beat, with course lectures available at a mouse click. "I can watch them from my desk at work, or at home or, better yet, I watch them in my hotel room when traveling," says Perez. "Everything I need is right there on my laptop."

Still, getting a degree online can be a daunting challenge for full-time professionals."I really had to learn again what it was like to be a student," says Perez. "It's difficult. If you have a really busy week at work, you may be watching three or four lectures on a Sunday."

What's more, Perez travels frequently, often spending two to three weeks away from home. "When you are on the road, there is no motivation to sit in the hotel room and watch lectures. I fall behind regularly. When you fall behind, that's when you start to dislike the program—trying to juggle that and your career at the same time gets difficult.

As colleges and universities offer an increasing number of distance learning programs, more and more people will be attracted to them, but not everyone is cut out for them. "This is a very time-intensive kind of work that requires persistence and the development of a routine," says Andy DiPaolo, senior associate dean at the Stanford University School of Engineering. "If you are not disciplined, you really should not engage in this kind of activity."

"The hardest thing is to persist, especially if the course doesn't involve a lot of interaction," says John Regalbuto, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago who recently spearheaded a study of online teaching and learning. "The dropout rates from these things can be horrendous. You have to have a lot of motivation." For Perez, that's a no-brainer. "The call to get the degree is what drives me."

Distance learning students must also be willing to learn in an isolated environment, a far cry from the camaraderie and teamwork that exists in classrooms and dormitories. But distance learning shouldn't be viewed as an elegant correspondence course. "You need to be careful that you don't become so inwardly focused that you lose the interactions that make education meaningful and fun," says DiPaolo. Plus, that interaction assists in the learning process, particularly on the graduate level where so many students are working professionals. "You learn as much from your fellow students as you do from the faculty members," says Carolyn Stark Schultz, director of the Center for Lifelong Engineering Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

Reaching Out

Of course, developing relationships with classmates who may be a continent away takes effort. "We have found that students don't know that two people from the same company are taking the same class," says DiPaolo. Unlike in the classroom, distance learning students can't really hide in the back and hope to never get called on. To feel like part of the class, they must show initiative and be aggressive. Ask questions via e-mail. Find a peer. Create a study team. Pick up the phone. "To make it a richer, deeper learning experience, the more interaction you can get around the subject matter, the better," says DiPaolo. "I have always felt like I was in the class," says Perez. "I do make the effort to speak to other students. That keeps me more in the loop."

Those new relationships can benefit a novice engineer, particularly one who focuses in a narrow discipline. Take noise control engineering. "In most communities around the country, there aren't that many people involved in that discipline," says Gary Miller, associate vice president for distance education at Pennsylvania State University. "This really does make them part of a professional community as well as a learning community. Aggregating a community of interest is something the Web does very well."

Industry students who fear they lack the discipline to persevere may want to take a class with a small group of work colleagues. If that's not possible, students should find someone who has taken the class who could mentor or tutor. "Campus students, generally speaking, want the faculty members to solve their problems," says Schultz. "Adult students will be a little bit more industrious about solving the problems themselves."

Some say industry and academia can do more to help students overcome the demands of their home and work lives. "Degree programs could build into the experience more work-related activities that bring to the attention of the company what the student is trying to accomplish," says Schultz. "Perhaps there is a project in the student's work environment that they can take on and use in the class. So many companies just treat continuing education as a benefit when it really could be addressed as strategic support."

Faculty Challenges

Distance learning faculty members are also finding new challenges as they turn away from the chalkboard. Putting course material online means a new teaching paradigm. A civil engineering professor, for example, could substitute the textbook and equations for a chat with a bridge inspector. But developing that online course is no easy task, especially if your computer prowess is lacking.

Courtney Burroughs, associate professor of acoustics at Pennsylvania State University, teaches a noise control engineering course through distance learning. Sounds and vibrations "wiggle," which makes a noise control class "very applicable to animation," says Burroughs. "But I am not a computer person. It has been difficult to get people to do animation for me," he says. And because the course creation may be a team effort, faculty members might find they're not always in control. "They lose some of the freedom that they normally have to create their own courses and not worry about other people," says Miller.

Burroughs also spends a lot of time trying to give his students the warm fuzzies, forcing himself to spend his evenings clearing out his docket each day. That means answering each individual e-mail. "Sometimes I will sit for three hours and work on it," says Burroughs. "That's the thing I feel I have to do in order to give the students who don't ever see me the feeling that there is somebody right there. I actually spend more time with the student one-on-one than I do in the regular classroom."

Devoting time to students behind the screen means Burroughs can provide individualized attention—a real boon since there is a wide gap in the quality of the technical backgrounds of the students. "It allows me to focus more on the individual student's needs. If I don't do that, I will lose some people. You can't go to a common denominator in this particular medium."

Educators are also discovering that distance learning provides them with many personal advantages. New industry contacts may lead to consulting and research opportunities. And "it will allow teachers to gain as much worldwide reputation for their teaching as they now do for their research," says Joseph DiGregorio, vice provost of Georgia Tech. Still to be ironed out, though, are questions regarding promotion, rewards, and tenure for distance learning faculty, as well as the intellectual property rights of the online courses they develop.

As distance learning becomes a revolution in higher education, academia has a lot to ponder. It used to be that content drove the value of a class. That's changing, says DiGregorio. "Now it's access to the course, instructional quality, convenience, cost, and student services provided that add as much value to the courses as content does." If those demands aren't met, students will take a course somewhere else. After all, it doesn't matter anymore whether you're located a block or a country away from an institution of higher education.

    Margaret Mannix is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C. area.


In this new addition to the Toolbox, educators recommend Web sites that they find useful.
To suggest a site,
e-mail us at .

    "A collection of Java applets that provide interactive visualization for basic concepts in signals, systems, and control. Topics include convolution, Fourier series, sampling, system properties, and Bode diagram analysis of control systems."

    Submitted by:
    Wilson J. Rugh
    Johns Hopkins University

    "The author has developed a flexible and powerful Windows-based gas-phase equilibrium program that can be downloaded for free. I have used it extensively in teaching and to a lesser extent in research."

    Submitted by:
    Geoffrey Silcox
    University of Utah

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