You Don't Have To Go the Whole Distance

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The Distance Learning Center at Troy State University is learning that you do not have to go the whole distance to reach an increasing number of learners. Troy State University is the third largest university system in the state of Alabama and has served Alabama teachers for over 11 decades. Teachers in the Troy service area are largely in rural parts of the state and are one to two hours away from any college or university that provides graduate or continuing education. Because of work and family obligations, these teachers find it hard to attend classes to advance and stay current in their professions.

Finding the Need

Superintendents throughout Troy's service area told the College of Education that they needed help immediately. Four hours round-trip on a weeknight was too much for teachers or their families to endure over a long period of time. Also, the teachers who spent long days at school during the week preparing lessons and supervising extracurricular activities found it hard to give up their weekends attending university classes for several years to earn advanced degrees.

Troy's Distance Learning Center reacted and has worked with the TSU College of Education to provide high quality educational programs 'enhanced by distance learning courses' to these teachers. As a result, class attendance time was cut by one-third in their degree programs.

The process was started when Dr. Anita Hardin, Dean of the College of Education, conducted a needs assessment in one county. The assessment showed the need for early childhood and elementary education degree programs. The goal then was to start a pilot program in one county that could be used throughout the Troy State University service area in Alabama. The decision was made; Troy State was going to do this for the teachers and the College of Education took an approach that should be applauded.

Primary Considerations and Questions to Resolve

Distance learning and related technologies were not the first considerations in the development of this new program to reach teachers. The first determination made was need, and then consideration was given to a reasonable timetable that would satisfy that need with the delivery of a quality program. Course outcomes would need to be the same regardless of the delivery methodology. Teachers would need to complete learning activities with time for reflection and attention to the higher level skills they must have. So these became the prime considerations in developing the program.

What schedule of courses needs to be offered to enable teachers who work full-time to complete their degrees? The decision was made that teachers who commit themselves to completing a master's degree should be able to do so in less than three years. This provided the starting point for program development after completion of the needs assessment.

The next questions to be answered were: What degrees should be offered and what is realistic progression for the course work? It was determined that a cohort group would be established to complete master's degrees in either early childhood or elementary education. A three-year completion goal was set with the first round of courses offered over a two-year period of time. All of the above provided the foundation for the development of the delivery methodology for the program.

Integrating Distance Learning To Complete the Course

Next, the College decided to limit the time students were required to be on campus by providing as many of the courses as possible via distance learning. They reviewed the course progression for the next two years to determine what courses would be most appropriate for online interactive delivery. It was determined immediately that it would not be possible to asynchronously provide all courses needed. Based on course outcomes and faculty availability, a determination was made as to the methodology that would be used for each individual course. This is where the Distance Learning Center started to play a role in the process. The Center provided a course model that could be used for delivery and also outlined the developmental support that would be available to develop this program. The College determined that it would be possible to develop about one-third of the courses as asynchronous delivery, deliver one-third with sessions at a local community college, and teach the remainder of the courses on campus.

The net result was a degree completion program for teachers that provided flexibility and addressed the needs of teachers in one Alabama county. A limit of 25 students was set to enable the program to properly deliver the highly interactive online distance learning courses and provide a quality education to the teachers. The program began in the Fall of 1998 with teachers in Covington County. TSU Distance Learning and the Department of Education helped teachers begin the admissions process and distributed information in order to familiarize teachers with the program. Teachers were organized into cohort groups, depending upon which degree (either elementary education or early childhood development) they chose to pursue. Courses were guaranteed to be available provided that teachers remained in their cohort group. The response to the program was overwhelming and a waiting list was created for teachers who wanted to participate.

The Distance Learning Model

Course development centered on lowest common denominator technologies that were available to the Troy State University faculty and the teachers in Covington County. The goal was to develop courses that could be completed on an anytime/anyplace basis and yet enabled teachers to achieve the same learning outcomes as classroom courses. The Distance Learning Center provided complete support to faculty to convert their syllabi to Web-based models. The Center takes the approach that each distance learning course should provide the same or equivalent activities to the classroom course methodology. Again, the outcomes need to be the same or better.

Below are the basics of the delivery model used in one of the courses developed by Troy State instructors. Syllabi and activities will vary for each course. It should again be noted that it was determined that some courses were not currently appropriate for distance learning delivery. This is the model used by one of the courses developed, but it is representative of the methodology used throughout the program

Reading

Syllabus Materials: The Web-based syllabus provides the heart of the course for the distance learning student just as it d'es in the classroom. The first thing a student should do upon entering the course Web site is to thoroughly read the syllabus. It provides a course overview and a discussion of all of the required activities. No other learning activities should be completed until the syllabus is completely understood. Hyperlinks are available to clarify student questions or provide more information on topics. Any questions can be addressed to the instructor. The student merely clicks on the instructor's name or the Help link on the page to send an electronic message to the teacher.

Assigned Textbook Chapters: The textbook for the course provides important information that must be mastered by the student. Reading assignments are followed up with electronic Study Guides that help the student focus on important parts of the material.

Journal Articles: Relevant educational journals are listed in the syllabus. Two articles must be read and a critique prepared according to the critique guidelines provided. This material is available electronically through the TSU Library.

Supplementary Readings: Additional readings are required to complete the research activities for this course. The Library Web site and course links provide bibliographic information to support these activities.

Writing

Journal Article Critiques: Two recommended journal articles must be critiqued according to the guidelines provided in the syllabus.

Professional Paper: A professional research paper must be completed according to the guidelines provided in the syllabus.

Internet Search Engine/s Critique: Students must be able to use and critically evaluate several Internet search engines according to the guidelines provided.

Intraterm Course Evaluation: After the first three weeks of the course, a Web-based intraterm course evaluation is completed. This confidential feedback will be requested from the student. It asks the student to evaluate the support he or she has received thus far from our administrative staff and faculty. Hopefully, improvements to be of additional help might be made during the progress of the course. This is a requirement, but it is not a graded activity. It is simply a brief critique that helps us improve the course and its administration.

Proctored Final Course Evaluation: At the time of the student's proctored final examination, he or she is also asked to complete a course evaluation questionnaire. This confidential questionnaire provides us with valuable feedback as to how to improve the course in the future. As in the intraterm evaluation, this is a requirement for the course, but is not a graded activity. Again, it is a course critique that helps us make improvements in the course and its administration.

Interactions

Online Lessons: Basic skills are required in the use of the Internet for interactions and accessing the library for research support. Students are required to join the Distance Learning Discussion and List Manager to participate in online lessons in library usage and technology. (This process is explained in the Distance Learning Orientation.) Troy State University has developed unique software to support asynchronous discussions for students and the instructor.

Faculty/Student Conferences: The instructor is available at all times electronically throughout the course. Students should interact with the instructor freely whenever they have questions or when a structured group interaction is scheduled.

Student-to-Student Discussions: The course requires interactions with other students. Students will participate in an introduction exercise on the discussion center and are encouraged to communicate with fellow students throughout the course. There are also required group interactions structured to support important lesson materials.

Outside Expert Interview/s: This course also requires interaction with one outside expert in the student's area of educational interest. This interaction occurs in the form of a structured interview explained in the syllabus.

Distance Learning Staff: The Distance Learning Center administrative staff is always there to support students. If they have any problems throughout the course that they cannot resolve with their instructor, the DLC staff should be immediately contacted.

Additional Media

Orientation Video/Audio: Orientation is an instructional process all distance learning students must go through before they can register for a distance learning course. Orientation is provided via a videotape that explains to each student all the requirements for participating in a distance learning course, such as how to find a proctor for exams; how to subscribe to the Distance Learning Listserv; how a student will receive his or her grade for the course; as well as other issues concerning the term with TSU.

Instructor Intro Video/Audio: The instructor video is a brief video/audio tape prepared by the instructor that will be working with the student during the course. It is important, as it should answer many basic questions that a student might have about course requirements. It is also the opportunity for the student to get to know the instructor better.

Required Course Video/Audio: Important course content is presented by video/audio tapes. Understanding of these tapes is facilitated through monitored student discussions on the Internet.

Internet: The Internet provides a valuable resource for educators. Students must illustrate basic Internet skills and the effective use of search engines.

Tests

Study Guides: Study Guides are brief quizzes that help students identify important materials from the textbook. These are online quizzes that are graded on a pass-fail basis. Instructor feedback from these guides will provide important comments to aid in taking the textbook portion of the final examination. Satisfactory completion is mandatory prior to the final examination.

Proctored Final Examination: The passing of the proctored final examination is required for the completion of the course. It will contain a variety of questions that will be mostly short answer and essay.

Success Leads To Finer Possibilities

Teachers enrolled in the Covington County program have expressed their appreciation of the convenience and accessibility of the program. By creating a hybrid program that blends the best elements of traditional and distance education, Troy State has found a way to reach those who would otherwise have been forced to put off completion of their degrees. The cohort structure helps teachers by providing ready encouragement, and the anytime/any place accessibility of the Internet-based courses allowed them to work and get their course work done, as well. At the same time, classes on campus were few enough to mitigate any inconvenience, yet still provided a time for students to meet instructors, ask questions, or visit on-site resources. Student evaluations of the courses and course materials provided a valuable way to improve on this quickly growing delivery method. The program has proven to be a successful way to reach the in-between students -- those who may be close enough to attend some courses but have other restrictions on their time and availability.

Combined distance and campus instruction within one course of study is not only effective but also efficient. Those interested in continuing their education are not restricted by time or denied the opportunity to participate in the university experience. Teachers are able to provide for the future of their careers without jeopardizing the quality of education provided to our children. The possibilities are endless. By utilizing the best of both traditional and Internet educational delivery methods, universities can provide an amazingly versatile system stabilized by tradition and anchored by quality teaching.

 

Richard Bothel, Ed.D, is dean of Distance Learning at Troy State University. His background includes work as a high school teacher, corporate manager, small business owner, college professor, director of educational technologies and graduate dean of continuing education and student services. Over the past ten years, he has focused on faculty development, video conferencing, distance learning, technology-across-the curriculum, Internet resources and administration of non-traditional educational programs.

Jennifer Enfinger is a senior undergraduate at Troy State University majoring in English and print journalism. In addition to her Distance Learning Center internship, she works at the TSU Writing Center and tutors for the Troy State Athletics Department. She graduates in the Spring of 1999 and plans to pursue a career in the publishing industry.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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