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The NASA Lewis Research Center's Learning Technologies Project

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Distance learning is a "buzz" word heard today by educators andstudents at all levels of learning. Since its beginning in adulteducation correspondence classes, distance learning has evolved withtechnology into "the ability to teach or communicate with large orsmall groups of people, dispersed across a wide geographical area,through the use of single or multiple telecommunicationsservices."[1] Distance learning describes the transfer ofinformation for educational purposes from one location to anotherthrough the use of communication technology. It provides a means bywhich information can be disseminated to broader audiences andaudiences in remote areas.

Distance learning has provided a means of achieving NASA's goalsof increased education and community outreach to a large, diverseaudience. Acknowledging the potential of distance learning as an aidto meeting NASA's goals, many projects at NASA Lewis Research Centerin Cleveland, Ohio, have become involved in distance learning in avariety of ways. One such project is the NASA Lewis LearningTechnologies Project (LTP). LTP is part of a government-wideinitiative known as the High Performance Computing and CommunicationsProgram (HPCCP). The Program's goal is to maintain the United States'competitiveness and leadership in the global computer technologiesmarket. The NASA Lewis LTP office works to develop new applicationsand pilot programs for K-12 education. Most technology training isconducted as teacher professional development workshops.

The NASA Lewis LTP staff has been involved in distance learningusing the Internet for several years. Student activities andprojects, computer instructional manuals, proficiency tests, links toinformation on educational products developed through the Project,and links to effective educational sites are available from the LTPWeb page (http://www.lerc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12). As the staff in theNASA Lewis LTP office considered broadening our involvement indistance learning, we examined the populations served by distancelearning and the instructional technologies used.

Diverse Populations

Distance learners include college and university students, K-12students and teachers, and students from the business sector. At thecollege and university level, distance learning provides anopportunity for populations who have traditionally been at adisadvantage when pursuing college degrees. Those who work duringtraditional classroom hours are turning to distance learning to findcourses at convenient times and places, often on their home computersin the evenings. This means additional learning opportunities forsingle parents who want to stay close to home for various reasons,physically disabled students who cannot easily travel to campus, andthose who are geographically distant from schools.[2]

The federal government recognizes the advantages of distancelearning in higher education, and the U.S. Department of Educationmay soon provide additional support to distance learners and schoolsthat offer courses through distance learning. A proposedreauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act would removerestrictions for students who take distance learning courses atdegree granting institutions. This change would remove a financialaid restriction for students who take distance learning courses fromschools that either (1) offer more than 50% of their courses throughdistance learning or (2) have more than 50% of their studentenrollment in distance learning courses. Distance learners would thenbe eligible to receive financial aid including an annual livingallowance of $1,500 for room, $2,500 for board, and the cost ofeducational equipment for their classes. In addition, thereauthorization would provide a $30 million competitive grant programto fund pilot projects that use distance learning technologies toenhance the delivery of post-secondary education.[3]

Distance learning is of great value to K-12 students and teachersbecause it provides additional opportunities for learning fromoutside sources with minimal or no travel involved. Schooladministrators can combine students from different school districtsinto one class when enrollment numbers or funding are low, or whenqualified teachers are not available. Juniors and seniors can take AP(Advanced Placement) classes for college credit without leaving theirschool buildings. Teachers can use outside speakers for talks tostudents or for professional development workshops. And students cantake field trips electronically without being physically transportedto the sites. The business sector is using distance learning forcontinuing education, vocational training and corporatecommunications. More and more, business managers are finding thatdistance learning is a cost-effective way to inform and educate theiremployees.

Instructional Technologies

Distance learning instructional technologies use equipment thatranges from the telephone to highly sophisticated dedicatedvideoconferencing systems. Instructors at the K-12 or college levels,as well as trainers in the business sector, use a variety of methods:instructional television, e-mail, videoconferences and the Internet.The Internet can be used for electronic field trips, Web chats,student projects or activities, Web "textbooks," instructionalmanuals and desktop videoconferences. The technology can be excitingand innovative and can provide highly satisfactory instructionaldelivery mechanisms.

Although not interactive, instructional television can be a veryeffective distance learning tool. Web chats are highly interactiveand can even provide face-to-face contact with the speaker whenlinked with desktop videoconferencing. Web-based student projects andactivities present an exciting and entertaining way for students toexplore their world while working in a structured group setting.Teachers, who often do not have the time to develop or look forWeb-based materials, benefit from groups like the NASA Lewis LTP thatprovide links to effective, educational Web sites.

Instituting a dedicated videoconferencing system requires specialequipment and room setup for best results. It also involvesadditional preparation time to train on the equipment, plan forinteractive presentations, and practice to become accustomed to themedium. The systems of the sites involved may not be compatible; atest conducted in advance is recommended. Connections over telephonelines are sometimes unpredictable, but can usually be corrected bysimply ending the connection and trying again. The audio difficultiescaused by echo feedback can be improved with muted microphones ormicrophones suspended from the ceiling. Live video and audiocapability (broadcast quality) and the two-way interaction betweenpresenter and audience make videoconferencing an innovative,effective means of reaching a target audience.

When using videoconferencing technology, not only must the cost ofthe equipment and surroundings be considered, but the cost of theconference to the presenter's organization, as well as to theaudience, must be examined. With point-to-point conferences, thereare long distance charges, which vary depending on the provider. Formulti-point conferences, in addition to the long distance charges,the gateway provider may charge fees of $45 - $108 per hour per site.However, relief in the form of E-rate subsidies may be available toschools and libraries. For answers to questions or to apply for theE-rate, contact the Schools and Libraries Corporation(http://www.slcfund.org/).

Why is distance learning becoming so widespread? Severaladvantages are listed below:

  • Distance learning offers courses at a time and place convenient for the student.
  • Distance learning removes geographical boundaries &emdash; students in remote sites can take advantage of educational opportunities without traveling long distances.
  • Distance learning forces schools to rethink the quality and uniqueness of their offerings.
  • Distance learners can benefit as much from their courses as those who sit in a traditional classroom.
  • Distance learners can take part in structured, worthwhile group work.
  • Distance learning is cost effective; travel costs are saved and new students are attracted.
  • Distance learning offers a larger choice of courses to students, courses that may have been canceled because of low enrollments, inadequate supply of qualified teachers, or insufficient funding.[4]

NASA's Involvement

Last summer two things happened that resulted in consideration ofvideoconferencing as a means of teacher professional developmentinstruction by the NASA Lewis LTP staff. First, NASA upgraded itsvideoconferencing systems to allow conferences to be scheduled withsites outside NASA. And second, local school districts beganresearching and purchasing videoconferencing equipment. As they setup their systems and began to prepare for the 1997-98 school year,local administrators began to seek content providers for student andteacher workshops. The NASA Lewis LTP office responded by offeringthe following teacher professional development workshops:

  • "Introduction to Aerodynamics" demonstrates how grades 8-12 math and physics teachers can use basic aerodynamics theories incorporated into interactive lessons to enhance classroom instruction. It includes understanding the forces that affect an aircraft. The slides used in the presentation are available for downloading at Beginner's Guide to Aerodynamics on the LTP Web site. One version of each slide contains a scientific explanation of the contents; the other version shows the slide alone in a different orientation for printing. The workshop is taught by Tom Benson, NASA aerodynamicist.
  • "Introduction to FoilSim" presents an interactive educational software package developed at NASA Lewis. The workshop teaches grades 8-12 math and physics teachers the basic classroom uses of FoilSim, a simulation that determines the airflow around various shapes of airfoils and baseballs. As students change the parameters of airspeed, altitude, angle of attack, thickness and curvature of the airfoil, and size of the wing area, the software calculates the lift and gives immediate graphical feedback, allowing students to learn the factors that influence lift. Macintosh and Windows 3.x/95/NT versions of the package, including airfoil and baseball lessons, are provided at no charge on diskette or for download from the LTP Web site. The workshop is taught by Tom Benson, NASA aerodynamicist and creator of FoilSim.
  • "Using NASA Educational Internet Sites in the Science Classroom" shows teachers of grades 3-8 and 9-12 how to use NASA educational Internet sites to enhance their curriculum. The Internet tour of NASA sites leads teachers to a variety of resources to help them: (1) access or develop lesson plans using the Web in a classroom with one computer for the entire class, one computer for a small group of students, or one computer for each student; (2) give demonstrations using the Internet; or (3) guide their students through interactive Web sites. The workshop can be tailored to a certain grade level and scheduled to last from one to two hours. A computer with live access to the Internet is recommended for interactive participation, and teachers should have previous experience with a Web browser. The workshop is taught by Carol Galica, NASA Lewis LTP Webmaster.

Survey of Schools

In an effort to determine the direction of its distance learningproject, the NASA Lewis LTP staff conducted a survey of 500 U.S. K-12schools in March 1998. Of the 72 schools that responded, 78% arecurrently involved in distance learning, 22% have plans to becomeinvolved in distance learning, and 28% are part of a distancelearning network of schools/organizations. Figure One summarizesparticipation in distance learning by the respondents.

The survey also asked for information on the schools'videoconferencing facilities. Figure Two gives respondents' specificson their computer and videoconferencing equipment and setup, as wellas on technical difficulties experienced.

Themajority of the respondents' distance learning funding is from grantsawarded to the local or state school system. Sixty-seven percent ofthe respondents have applied for the E-rate. Long distance chargesrange from $.30 - $1.00 per minute. Providers' gateway fees rangefrom $40 - $150 per hour. And the average expense pervideoconference, including workshop cost, line charges and service,is approximately $19 per hour. Figures Three and Four depict therespondents' willingness to pay professional development (with 51%responding) and student (with 28% responding) content provider feesper workshop.

Fromthese charts we can conclude that 40% to 50% of the respondents arewilling to pay a content provider fee up to $500 per workshop.Respondents suggested that videoconferencing workshops: should be asinteractive as possible; should include a pre-packet of materials anda list of supplies needed; should help meet the national contentstandards; and should allow for free movement of the presenter (witha clip-on microphone).

They asked for K-12 student workshops on the planets, the weather,moon probes, Mars, the space station, the space shuttle, Houstoncontrol center and microgravity, and for interviews with astronautsand other NASA personnel. Electronic field trips to NASA facilitiesand related sites were also requested.

Future Plans

The survey asked for feedback on the professional developmentworkshops offered by NASA Lewis LTP during the 97-98 school year. Ofthe respondents, 33% were interested in our workshop on BasicAerodynamics, 32% were interested in our workshop on FoilSim, and 56%were interested in our workshop on NASA Internet sites. Future NASALewis LTP distance learning plans include videoconferencing teacherworkshops on EngineSim, a simulation package that allows students tointeractively design, wind tunnel test, and flight test turbojet andturbofan engines. Forty percent of the respondents were interested inthe proposed workshop on EngineSim. The survey results are being usedto help shape the NASA Lewis LTP distance learning project.

A schedule of videoconferencing workshops for the 1998-99 schoolyear is available from the LTP Web site. Web chats with workshoppresenters are scheduled upon request. The NASA Lewis LTPvideoconferencing workshops can be broadcast to teachers andpre-service teacher groups across the country. We have the capabilityto connect to most videoconferencing systems, as well as CUSeeMedesktop conferencing technology. The LTP Web site gives informationon the registration process and who to contact for details of fees orcharges. Although NASA Lewis d'es not charge a content provider's feeat this time, long distance and provider gateway charges may beapplied. Participants are asked to complete an evaluation form at theclose of each videoconference.

The NASA Lewis LTP is filling a local and national need forcontent providers for videoconferencing professional developmentworkshops for math and science teachers in grades 3-12. By doing so,the NASA Lewis LTP continues to offer support to math and scienceeducators who work to expand students' knowledge of, and interest in,math, science, technology and engineering. Through this medium, theLTP staff introduces and demonstrates NASA Lewis educational productsthat can be used to tie real-world applications to math andscience.


Ruth Petersen is Educational Coordinator for the LearningTechnologies Project at the NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland,Ohio. She has a Master's degree in education and 21 years' teachingexperience, with over 10 years in computer technology education. Shehas taught in public and private institutions, both at the highschool and college levels. Ruth, who is employed by RMS InformationSystems, Inc. (a NASA contractor), has been working with the NASALewis LTP for one year. In addition to coordinating the LTP distancelearning program, she has developed training and resource manuals andimplemented summer professional development workshops for teachers.E-mail: Ruth.A.Petersen@lerc.nasa.gov

References:

  1. 1. "What is distance learning?" (1998), Distance Learning Network (online database), State College, PA, http://www.dlnetwork.com/question1.htm.
  2. Instructional Telecommunications Council, "Who Takes Distance Learning Courses and Why?" (1998), in Distance Education Info (online database), Washington, DC, http://www.sinclair.edu/communit/itc/disted.htm
  3. Mello, John P., Jr. (1998), "U.S. Looks to Help Distance Ed Students," Inside Technology Training, May, p. 8.
  4. Kearsley, Greg (1998), "Distance Education G'es Mainstream," T.H.E. Journal, 25(10), pp. 22-26.

Why Start a Mentoring Program in Your Organization?

There are many benefits of creating a mentoring program in your organization. In her new book, Mentoring for Success, author Elizabeth Weinstein, Ph.D., lists several advantages for introducing mentor-mentee relationships into the workplace: 

Healthy Work Environment

  • Helps support the organizational mission.
  • Encourages creative ideas to flourish.
  • Enhances cooperation and establishes a foundation for effective teamwork.
  • Improves communication between different levels in the organization.
  • Helps employees adapt to the changing workplace by sharing information, concerns and possible strategies for addressing issues.
  • Makes a statement about the organization's values.

Cost Effective

  • Results in increased productivity because of the improvement in employee skills and motivation.
  • Reduces organizational turnover. Mentees receive individual attention and plan for their careers in the company.
  • Requires minimal time commitment.
  • Makes hiring of new employees more cost effective if young people can be mentored in intern positions and gain the appropriate training before becoming an employee.
  • Requires a low financial investment.
  • Uses talent that might not have surfaced otherwise.

Leadership Development

  • Develops future leaders, resulting in effective succession planning.
  • Creates an opportunity to promote and retain employees with leadership potential, especially women and minorities.
  • Enables future organizational leaders to develop and practice skills.
  • Motivates mentees to work towards being effective leaders.

Diversity

  • Advances capable individuals, particularly minorities and women.
  • Helps organizations to meet diversity goals.
  • Assists in retaining the "balance" of the organization. Mentees bring a variety of experiences and backgrounds that enrich the organization.

Training

  • Enables new hires to be easily assimilated into the organization.
  • Reduces the need for scheduled skill development training opportunities.
  • Provides on-the-job training.
  • Encourages employees to be active and life-long learner.

In addition, there are also benefits for individual mentors and mentees.

Mentor Benefits

  • Develops skills in coaching, relationship-building, consulting and teaching.
  • Helps to rejuvenate the long-time employee.
  • Assists in decision making by seeking the mentee's perspective and input.
  • Validates the skills and experiences gained, which provides a sense of acheivement.
  • Creates a feeling of knowing that the mentee is learning and growing.

Mentee Benefits

  • Allows the opportunity to try out new ideas using the mentor as a sounding board.
  • Provides career development planning.
  • Absorbs the new hire into the organization.
  • Helps to identify skill development needs and seeks alternatives for meeting those needs.
  • Learns about the organizational culture (policies, procedures, systems and relationships).

From Mentoring for Success by Elizabeth Weinstein, Ph.D. Published by American Media Publishing, (800) 262-2557.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.

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