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An Internet-Based Introductory College Astronomy Course with Real-Time Telescopic Observing

Using current technologyit is possible to demonstrate a method of distance learning that isboth efficient, effective and can be applied to a physical sciencecourse. This method uses the Internet and the science course as anintroduction to a college-level astronomy course, complete withlaboratory and real-time telescope observation sessions.

Following are the criteriaused to design a four-credit introductory astronomy course with anobservation laboratory for use over the Internet. Not only dostudents in this course work in a highly interactive mode, but theyare also able to make telescopic observations in real-time using onlytheir Internet browser.[1]

The "Lecture" Component: From SoFar Away

Over the years it hasbecome apparent to me that my students learn best when they candirectly interact with their professor. During a lecture, thosestudents who seem to be the most engaged in what is happening arethose that ask questions and follow me with their eyes as I moveabout. They tend to do better on exams. I decided to design anInternet course that allows students to become engaged in a similarway.[2] In other words, interactivity and a visual sensewould have to be incorporated into the course.

I also noticed that mystudents are engaged in the learning process when they can relate tome as a living, breathing person. I am talking about a sense ofpersonality with which the student identifies as their professor.This trait was also incorporated into the course. Another importantaspect of engaging students is to have the latest materials that canbe used in lecture. These materials bring relevance to the disciplinebeing taught. As it turns out, this was the easiest section toimplement in the Internet astronomy course.

Armed with these anecdotalobservations I began to design the Internet astronomy course. Isettled on a three-point approach. Each point covers one of myobservations about how students seem to become engaged in learning. Iwill begin with the easiest point to implement.

The First Point: CurrentInformation

By its very nature theInternet is a storehouse of current, factual material on almost everysubject. The astronomical community has made great use of theInternet. New discoveries are made available to the public almost asthey happen. NASA and its many contractors constantly display up tothe minute images, space shuttle data and direct data from spacecraftsuch as the lunar explorer. A memorable example was the Pathfinder'sMartian images. Many scientists also freely display information abouttheir projects. The Internet has reduced the size of the textbook forthis course. I have supplied the student with links that cover all ofthe topics that are taught in the course. The student always hasinformation from the source, which is accurate and up todate.[3]

The Second Point: EyeContact

I incorporated into thecourse the ability for the students to actually see me during onlineconferences. Using a relatively inexpensive program, I can send alive video stream to the student's browser when they link to theappropriate part of my Web site.[4] I call this APITV, and ithas the ability to connect to four users simultaneously. Onceconnected, the student can see me, and we can communicate back andforth via a text chat mode built into the program or through othertext chat programs.

APITV is also the videolink that the student uses for the real-time online telescopicobservations. To support this aspect of the course I built anobservatory with a number of cameras at various points throughout thefacility. I am able to show the student the control room and thetelescope in its dome. Students can see me working with theequipment, which gives them a sense of the observatory environmentand what an astronomer d'es in that environment.

A second use of video isaccomplished by sending a frame-by-frame update whenever the studentis on the appropriate Web page. This program, also relativelyinexpensive, is used in a mode I call Show and Tell.[5] Itcan serve only one student at a time, so when a frame is being"grabbed" by more than one student a "busy" message appears. UsingShow and Tell I am able to show the student the actual object I mightbe chatting with them about. For example, using a lunar globe I canpoint out the area where Apollo 11 landed. This proves to be valuablewhen the students are working on their laboratory assignments andneed clarification. For all practical purposes, I am there with thestudent.

The Third Point:Personality

The most difficult aspectof this triad was how to give the student a sense of my personality.In class that isn't a problem. During the course of a lecture one'spersonality slips through. Since the student would not have immediateaccess to the video streams until they registered, I decided to writean "electronic text book" for the course. This would solve thepersonality problem and also give the student a core set of basicscientific ideas that are unchanging. The result of this third pointis the CD-ROM called Frontiers of Astronomy. Within this CD-ROM thestudents would be introduced to me as a scientist and a person whowould be their professor for the course. Even before they get onlinethey would see and hear me. Here they would come to understand my wayof doing things.

I have found that after"meeting" me within the laser-read bumps of the CD-ROM, my studentsknow me when they see me for the first time online. A sense offamiliarity is established. They know that an impersonal device suchas a computer is just an extension of their professor. The coldnessof technology warms a bit. This allows the student to become engagedin the learning process.

The "Laboratory" Component: Pencilin Hand

The course also includes alaboratory component. Here the student has to also become involved ina more traditional way. The laboratory activities are designed tostimulate questions in the student's mind.[6] Theseactivities also allow for calculation and thinking. Using Show andTell I am able to help the students through the difficult visualaspects of the activities. A planesphere is included with thelaboratory materials, allowing the student to go outside and try tofind constellations.

Telescopic data iscollected using a CCD imager. The output of the CCD sends the imagedirectly to one of three computers. Another of the three computerscontrols the telescope's position and the third computer is used tobroadcast over the Internet. The image is captured, stored andsimultaneously converted to a video stream. That stream can beselected using a video switch in the control room and the student isthen able to see the image in their browser. If the student is happywith the image, I then send the student a high resolution version bye-mail.

What is Involved to Run Such aCourse?

The primary thing is tohave a reliable Internet connection. Students taking such a coursearen't keen on not being able to contact you. These students areusually highly motivated, self-directed and want to "get on with it".Of course just because you have a reliable Internet connection d'esnot mean the student will, too. Unfortunately, many colleges, whilehaving their own servers, may not be reliable. My college has thatproblem so I elected to provide my own ISP.

You need to construct asuitable Web site, which is the entry point into the course. Fromthat site the student should be able to access all the informationabout the course; i.e. syllabus, grading policies, exams, etc. Youmay want to visit my site at www.api-az.com and see an example of howI set up the site for my students' use.

If you are offering thecourse for credit then you will need an institution to take care ofregistration of students, etc. Pima College in Tucson, Arizona, myhome institution, has decided to offer the course. The college isthen responsible for registration. Because the Internet isinternational, this can be a problem for some institutions. Forexample, in my first offering I had a student from Venezuela who hada tough time registering.

A textbook is usuallyassociated with a course. This course is no different. The CD-ROMcontains a basic astronomy textbook that I have written and edited.It is the focal point of the course. It contains over 400 pages oftext, images and video in three parts. Part One: Introductionincludes the history of astronomy, those people who made an impact onthe science. Part Two: Moving Out deals with the space program, thelaws of motion and the people associated with these topics. PartThree: The Solar System deals with the solar system and planets,comets, etc.

The CD-ROM also containsthe additional files that the students need. Included are two freecommunications programs, ICQ and POWWOW. These very powerful programsallow online text chat in a group mode and in the case of POWWOW alsovoice chat plus a whiteboard. A folder of Internet links is alsoincluded. Folders of 3D images of Mars, interior panorama images ofthe space shuttle and the Russian space station Mir and a computersimulation activity is there as well.[7]

Some Implications

One of the disadvantagesof any distance learning course is that you will find yourselfdevoting more time per student than you do in a standard lecture. Youbecome a private tutor to your students. However, one of theadvantages is that once set up, you can teach this course fromanywhere for any institution. What this means is that I could teachthis course from Tucson for any institution, anywhere on Earth. Icould become another institution's part-time faculty member. Theimplications of this teaching method are profound. As technologyimproves and the techniques used in this type of course become easierto implement, colleges and universities as we know them will change.We as educators should be driving the changes. Being an optimist, Isee positive changes occurring as a result.

How Much D'es thisCost?

I would have liked to citeat this point that funding was from this or that Federal grant orfrom this or that Foundation or from my own college for that matter.I cannot. To duplicate what I have described for you in this paperwould cost approximately $60,000. Two years of work and extra incomefrom other projects allowed me to assemble all of the components tooffer this course. Having complete control over such a project is arewarding experience. The cost for the student to participate is lessthan a standard textbook, plus tuition and fees.


David G. Iadevaia,Ph.D is an award winning professor of astronomy and physics at PimaCollege in Tucson, Arizona, where he has been teaching for the past15 years. Dr. Iadevaia is a member of the American AstronomicalSociety and chair of its Archaeoastronomy Committee. He also hasindustrial experience in the computer and electronics field andstarted a company in 1993 to address some of the needs of theeducational community.

E-mail: astro@api-az.com

References:

  1. At this time it has worked successfully with Netscape 3.0 and higher and IE 4.0.
  2. Klemm, W. (1998), "Eight Ways to Get Students More Engaged in Online Conferences," T.H.E. Journal, 26(1), pp. 62-64.
  3. Ibid
  4. A variety of personal video streaming programs are available in the $50-100 price range.
  5. A variety of frame grabber programs are available in the $50-100 price range.
  6. Lab packet materials are from LSW Publications, Inc., Mattituck, N.Y.
  7. From Project Clea, an NSF funded program at Gettysburg College.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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