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Inter-Institution Cooperation in Distance Learning

DR. AL P. MIZELL, Director Nova University Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and DR. DIANA R. CARL, Director Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Daytona Beach, Fla. Institutions of higher education can enhance the development of distance education opportunities through cooperative efforts. This can be as simple as helping inform students in other institutions of the work being done at well-known locations; or it can be as complicated as a consortium of institutions working on the joint delivery of instruction to isolated students. Collaboration is a recognized element of the university collegium. The university as a community of scholars supporting each other is a long-standing ideal. In some cases it even becomes practiced. Collaboration has been assumed to take place at the same location or with some face-to-face discussion over periods of time. It has been equated more with research than with teaching. With distance technologies, however, there is increased opportunity for a different type of collaboration that extends the breadth of experience that is available to students. Technologies allowing immediate dial-up access make resources available literally at the tips of students' fingers. Tryout for Adult Learners Dr. Diana Carl, at Embry-Riddle University, arranged for her students to be online using accounts supplied by Nova University. The course, MAS654, Principles of Adult Learning, is intended to prepare students to develop learning experiences that are appropriate to adult populations. Since many adults learn using technologies such as computers, TV and electronic townhalls, she wanted students to experience these distance learning modes and investigate their use for adult learning experiences. For the interchange between Nova and Embry Riddle, the electronic classroom (ECR) was the major point of demonstration and discussion. In general, an ECR session consists of a faculty member and a group of students at separate locations using their individual computers and modems to connect into a central host computer so they can all "speak" with each other, using their keyboards and computer screens to do the "talking." In this case, the Nova mainframe on the Fort Lauderdale main campus served as the host computer. The students were all in a lab in Daytona Beach, connected through their school's computer into the Internet. Once all students were connected to the Nova computer, they signed into electronic classroom number 4 (ecr 4); there are many classrooms available online at the same time. Internet is a connection between universities, companies, agencies, etc. around the world who agree to pass messages on without charge. Thus, worldwide communications are available to educators and others with Internet accounts. The Nova academic computer system runs on the main computer, named "novavax." UNIX serves as the basis for the delivery of instruction for this system. Electronic mail, Writers' Workbench, talk, phone, the electronic classroom, etc. are all commands or programs that can be run under UNIX to make students' online activities interesting and worthwhile. "Virtual Classroom," in Detail An ECR classroom is a "virtual classroom"; it emulates the features of a regular classroom. There is a time set for everyone to enter and "take their seats." Attendance is taken automatically. The screen is divided with 16 lines at the top reserved for the instructor's "blackboard." The next four lines are the students' display window. Normally, the user codes of all students present are displayed here for all to see. (See Figure 1.) Students can "raise their hands" by hitting a couple of keys. A question mark then appears in front of that student's user code in the student display window, so everyone can see the "raised hand." When the instructor is ready to call on a student, she or he d'es the same thing -- hit a couple of keys; the display window is then turned over to the individual student to write out his or her question or comment. The computer keeps track of who raised their hand first and calls on them first -- unless the instructor wishes to override this feature. There is even a four-line buffer available to all students for writing on privately. They can save this buffer; when called on by a faculty member, students touch a couple of keys and the buffer contents will be written into the student display window all at once. Thus, no waiting for slow typists! The instructor usually prepares "frames" or "transparencies" before class and calls them up when needed; they project on the teacher's blackboard all at once. At any time, the instructor can clear the screen and write live comments or ask questions. An instructor can also call on any student at any time, which helps keep them on their t'es. Instructors normally create question frames to use every ten minutes or so; thus, students must respond and stay active. It would be easy for students to get bored (and go get coffee) while the instructor droned on and on in an online "lecture" if there wasn't frequent interaction. Savvy instructors take advantage of the medium's characteristics and use each type of media for the job it can best accomplish. Thus, videotapes of information to be presented in a one-way format are prepared and sent out to students beforehand, so the ECR session can be used for follow-up discussions. Articles, case studies, etc. may be sent early as well. Or roles and background material can be sent out and a simulation then conducted online, with each student playing out their pre-assigned role. Creativity is the only limit to uses of the ECR. Overview of the System Nova University staff spent years creating the ECR so that 30 or more students (although 10 to 15 is a more ideal number) can connect together, at the same time, in an ECR session.

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The teacher has control over the classroom and calls on students to participate. In this simulated classroom, students can get the feeling that they are working directly with their faculty member and classmates -- after all, they are! Multiple-choice questions (up to nine choices) may be presented in the ECR for responses. Thus, an instructor can even grade students if tests are desired. Results can be used formatively; instructors can modify the pace or direction of the presentation if the results suggest confusion or boredom. However, sufficient time must be allocated to instructors to be able to prepare meaningful ECR sessions. Faculty require time to get used to running electronic classroom sessions. The actual commands needed are minimal (eight or ten at most). However, the psychological barrier to conducting that first ECR session alone is formidable. Adult students must also learn this new way of interacting and need practice before they feel comfortable with it. Familiarity generally happens rapidly, however. Students will even schedule their own ECR study groups with one of their own acting as the instructor! ECR times are scheduled on a master calendar to try to avoid conflicts. When several classrooms are running at the same time, the system tends to be rather slow. So it is best to schedule ECR sessions at less busy times. Accommodating various time zones across the world can also be a challenge. At Nova, late evenings or Saturday or Sunday afternoons around 3 p.m. or 5 p.m. have proved most satisfactory. ECR sessions can, and generally are, recorded and stored in an online library where students can go to play the class session over again to clarify points or to pick up additional information. Menus are being created to simplify this process for the students and faculty. Students' Evaluations The ability of each student to create buffered comments at the same time seemed to have both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, it allowed many to comment at once and created more overall productivity during class time. On the negative side, it was easy for students to lose the continuity of the keyboard conversation. In general, students were curious about use of the ECR and how it related to students who were not keyboard literate. It seemed to create the kind of discussion and exploration that was desired in this graduate course. For example, students noted the ability of the instructor to integrate other software tools into the session and effectively develop group online projects. Also brought up during the class was the fact that new workstations are being developed for the home where data, graphics, voice and slow-scanned video images can be sent over regular phone lines from the school into individual homes and back to the school. As more modalities are used, learning becomes more realistic and more meaningful. As this phase of the technology is developed further, we believe that distance learning directly into the home will become commonplace. Participating students were asked to rate the value and level of interest they had in the ECR when they began the session and again at the end. The mean scores rose from 3.5 at the beginning to over 5 at the end on a 6-point scale (with 6 being the highest). Insightful comments were a highlight of the last session. Students in the class at Embry Riddle came up with some searching questions related to the role of distance education in the adult learner's future -- especially in the area of aeronautics. The evening went rapidly and 1.5 hours had passed before anyone realized it was time to draw the session to a close. More Widespread Use This type of cooperative activity needs to be expanded so students around the country have an opportunity to experience telecommunications first-hand. It is especially important for educators and trainers to become familiar with current uses of technology so they can incorporate aspects of it into their instruction where appropriate. More widespread use is already at hand. For instance, Nova University was asked to show the online system to a group of master's students from Florida International University studying the use of electronic media in education. What could be more appropriate than to be taken into a lab of computers and to go online with each other and a guest professor to learn more about distance learning? This session occurred in March, 1993, to rave reviews of the students. Only one question remains. Might you be next? Al Mizell is the director of the Office of Technology for Nova University's Fort Lauderdale campus. E-mail: mizell@alpha.acast.nova.edu Diana Carl is the director of Instructional Technology Development for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. E-mail: carl@db.erau.edu

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.

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