Partnerships Increase Access to Engineering Education: North Carolina's Two+Two Experience

By Catherine E. Brawner, Sarah A. Rajala, Thomas K. Miller III, Harish P. Cherukuri, Cheryl Alderman and Ronald K. Ingle

North Carolina State University (NC State), The University of NC at Charlotte (UNCC) and NC A&T State University (NC A&T) have the three colleges of engineering in the 16-campus University of NC system. These colleges of engineering provide access to engineering education throughout the state, including to those citizens in the more remote and less wealthy areas. For more than 20 years, NC State has partnered with The University of NC at Asheville (UNCA) in a Two+Two engineering program in which students take their first two years of general education at UNCA, and then transfer to NC State's College of Engineering for upper division courses and their degree.

In 1998, NC State began to offer UNCA students the lower division engineering courses through live distance education in lieu of site-based delivery by local, adjunct or traveling faculty members. Then in 1997, NC State proposed that the Two+Two program be expanded to include the University of NC at Wilmington and Lenoir Community College (LCC). With approval of the funding came a request from the legislature that NC State partner with UNCC and NCA&T in the implementation of the two new Two+Two engineering programs. These two sites began to offer the program in spring 2000.

Distance education supports the Two+Two programs in the larger disciplines, namely electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering and civil engineering. Courses offered include statistics, engineering dynamics, electric circuits, an introduction to logic design, and solid mechanics. Students interested in other disciplines, such as chemical engineering, complete their general education requirements during the first two years, and then transfer for all of their engineering coursework and the completion of their degree.

Virtual Classroom Model

Courses in the program are delivered using a virtual classroom model, which attempts to replicate a traditional classroom. This means that professors and students can interact during class and office hours. The original concept was to provide classes in an entirely synchronous mode. However, scheduling quirks - all campuses have different semester schedules - and natural disasters - Hurricane Floyd and its ensuing floods caused LCC to close for three weeks in 1999 - made us quickly realize the need to archive lectures for later delivery.

One of the goals of the Two+Two project is to make the teaching environment as natural as possible for the instructor. We use the SMART Board from SMART Technologies Inc., which is essentially a large touch-screen computer that appears as a whiteboard to students in the sending location, but the image that is transmitted to the remote location is of computer quality. We can also transmit images from a document camera or from on-screen presentations.

The technology used to deliver the live classes from NC State and NC A&T is based on the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) H.323 standard. H.323-compatible products provide two-way videoconferencing over Internet Protocol. A companion standard for H.323 is T.120, which supports data-sharing applications, such as whiteboard and remote control of PC applications. To provide full interactive support for more than two sites, a multiconferencing unit (MCU) is required. The advantages ofH.323-based technologies for live distance learning applications include:

  • Seamlessly integrated voice, video and data over a single physical channel (i.e., the Internet) supporting a rich, multimedia presentation. The data capability is also particularly important, as it provides full digital, computer-screen resolution for complex graphics and presentations.
  • A broad range of interoperable products from multiple vendors. This ranges from desktop conferencing appliances that plug into a USB port on a laptop computer suitable for one-on-one conferences between instructor and student, to sophisticated systems costing $15,000 or more that can be integrated into our high-end video classrooms.
  • Broad support as a widely adopted standard. H.323 has been chosen as the international standard for videoconferencing, including distance learning applications, for the next generation of the North Carolina Research and Education Network. It is also widely supported among the Internet2 community. As a result, technical support for H.323 videoconferencing is much more readily available than for competing alternatives based on proprietary protocols.

Unfortunately, there are some disadvantages of H.323 for distance learning applications, including:

  • H.323 is designed more for peer-to-peer types of communication, such as virtual conference room applications, than for instructor-audience communication, such as virtual classroom applications. A major disadvantage with H.323 in this regard is lack of floor control functions, such as the ability of students to raise their hand to answer or ask a question, as well as the ability of the instructor to switch over audio and video to a designated student.
  • H.323 d'es not provide the ability to record and play back classroom sessions. To overcome this limitation, we capture the lectures as RealMedia streams. A serious limitation with this approach is the inability to include the T.120 stream in the recorded lecture, so any data-sharing applications are lost.

Lectures from UNCC are delivered using Centra Symposium, a proprietary product designed explicitly to support the virtual classroom model. As a result, Centra largely overcomes the two disadvantages of H.323 cited previously. However, Centra d'es not support recording of video in the archived sessions, and the video is generally of much lower quality than when it is achieved with H.323. Also, as a proprietary product, Centra d'esn't enjoy the broad support and interoperability of H.323-based products and applications.

Teaching and Learning

Our distance learning model involves an instructor teaching a live class at the home institution and having that class transmitted in real time to the receiving sites. Classes are archived and available for later viewing for both the sending-site students and the remote students. Students at all locations are responsible for homework and exams, which may be graded locally or by the sending institution. At the remote sites, instructors use existing physics or electronics laboratory space to teach required labs for the engineering courses. NC State provides appropriate equipment, and lab activities follow the same syllabus and procedures as the sending institution.

Preparing for a distance learning class takes substantially more time than for a class taught only face to face. This is especially true the first time the class is offered, as well as for subsequent offerings. To enable remote students to follow the lecture, notes must be prepared, made Internet-ready and provided to them in advance. Lecture materials also need to be prepared for distance delivery. Diagrams and drawings must be made electronically, either in advance or by drawing on the electronic whiteboard or tablet. These drawings also occasionally lead to an inadequate explanation of the subject matter. In addition, spontaneity suffers from both the need to have all materials ready before class, as well as the need for the instructor to remain relatively stationary for the duration of the class.

Also, managing homework and exams is often problematic. Sending documents through a shipping com-pany or by fax are imperfect ways to send documents from remote sites to the teaching sites because of time and quality, respectively. The aforementioned scheduling conflicts occasionally mean that students who were first to turn in their homework - usually the sending-site students - can't get their assignments back or learn the correct solutions until all of the homework is graded. Scanning the homework and e-mailing it for grading, then posting the grades and problem solutions seems to provide the timeliest and most effective mechanism for handling homework. We have found WebCT, and presumably other course management tools, to be very useful for managing paper flow, as well as for conversations between professors and their students. Lecture notes, problem solutions and grades can be posted, while the bulletin board feature allows for announcements and the answering of common questions.

Due to its long history with the Two+Two program, UNCA has a number of resources available on campus for its engineering students that are not available at the other sites. Qualified instructors in each available subject area teach labs and problem sessions, grade homework and tests, and teach some nonengineering courses not offered by distance delivery. LCC and UNCW each have a single program director and some administrative support. The site directors are responsible for recruiting, advising, handling administrative and technical issues, recommending students for transfer, teaching or arranging for labs, and providing help sessions for their students. The site directors are experienced engineers, but are not necessarily experts in all of the content areas. So, they and their students require regular contact with the course instructor for problem solving, which is done through desktop videoconferencing.

Administrative Challenges

The primary administrative challenges are disparate academic calendars and unforeseen emergencies, so each of the participating institutions sets its own academic calendar. This means that semester start dates, end dates, exam periods and holidays may be different for each institution. Although not problematic for the sending sites, this is a very difficult issue for the receiving sites. If students at these sites are required to be on campus to receive a lecture whenever it is delivered, it is conceivable that those students could never get a break.

However, the different schedules do have some benefits. Instructors often use their official breaks as an opportunity to visit the receiving sites and meet the students in person. For example, UNCC invites remote students to visit during their breaks to get to know the campus and meet the faculty. We have found that the interest and attention paid by the remote students is heightened once the professor has made a visit to their location. The students become more likely to ask questions and participate in the class. For this reason, we recommend that professors make a trip as early in the semester as possible to visit the remote students. Because of the two-way nature of all of the facilities, the professors can deliver their classes from any site, which gives the remote students the benefit of sitting in class with the professor.

Hurricane Floyd was a disaster of epic proportions from which parts of eastern North Carolina have yet to recover. LCC was an island amid the floodwaters in Kinston and was closed for three weeks. However, the magnitude of an unforeseen emergency d'esn't have to disrupt the distance education process. Snowstorms in Asheville are not uncommon, and even if the university is open, students may not be able to get to class. Snowstorms at the sending sites create trouble as well, causing downtime for the remote students not affected.

Of course, not all emergencies are caused by weather. Although the technology we use has vastly improved over the last four years, we are not immune to technical problems that prevent a class from being delivered successfully. These technical problems can include campus networks becoming stressed, people making small changes with unintended consequences, and road crews digging up fiber-optic cable. The solution to these problems is to build in redundancy, institute a proactive monitoring system, have people in place to make sure everything works smoothly, and archive copies of the lecture.

Cost Issues

The biggest advantage of our current system is that it provides access to engineering education to students around the state who might not otherwise be able to get it. The disadvantage is that this access comes at a high price. On a per-student basis, the cost is four times the revenue brought in through tuition and state credit-hour funding. Clearly, this model is not scalable in its current form. It requires both technical and academic support at each location, as well as equipment and facilities.

Cost to the student is another issue. Students at LCC and UNCW register for general education courses at their home campuses and for engineering courses at the engineering colleges. Thus, it is possible for a student to have six credit hours at UNCW, four at NC State and four at UNCC. Students are also required to pay part-time tuition at each of the three colleges, possibly increasing their tuition costs. Financial aid can also be impacted because they are not full-time students at any one institution; rather, they are part-time students at three institutions. However, this problem can be resolved through administrative processes.

For the engineering colleges to recoup some of the costs for the distance courses, we have proposed what we call the "home institution model." This means that students enroll in the host institution and pay tuition and fees there, more easily qualifying them for financial aid and providing them with tuition cost savings. The state funding for that student would go to the institution providing the course to help offset its cost. This model has not yet been adopted, but we are hopeful that it will be someday.

Lessons Learned

Through this process, we have learned that the technology must be transparent, reliable and common to all campuses. Reliability is particularly important, because engineering coursework is difficult and students must be able to get all of the material in the proper sequence. We have also learned that on-site technical support is important, since neither the professor teaching the class nor the remote site facilitator can be expected to solve technical problems that occur.

In addition, we've learned that, in most cases, the audio and whiteboard are much more important than the video being provided. A video of the instructor is useful for providing a sense of presence, but an 8" x 10" image would work just as well. Although two-way audio is important for sites to be able to ask questions, it d'es not need to be available continually. In fact, it is distracting due to background noise and sidebar conversations. An "electronic handraiser," which we developed, works much better for signaling the professor and activating the remote audio. The instructor must also be able to point and draw with the whiteboard tools, in addition to being able to annotate materials prepared in advance.

We are fond of saying that distance education magnifies poor teaching. By this we mean that good teachers can probably teach well despite the limitations placed on them by the technology. With an engaging style and a commitment to interacting with their classes, good teachers will ensure that the majority of their students learn the subject matter. However, the back-to-the-class "chalk and talk" lecturer, while merely uninspiring to students in the same room, is unintelligible to the students at a distance. We believe it is important that the right faculty members be asked to teach distance learning courses. It is also important that this faculty be provided with training on the nuances of teaching distance education classes and with sufficient support to deliver a high-quality educational experience for all of their students.

Conclusions

There are a number of benefits to this distance education model as it currently exists. Foremost, people from around the state are provided with increased access to engineering education. And those students who participate in the program get early exposure to the engineering programs, en-hancing their probability of success when they eventually transfer into them. The students also have the benefit of being advised by engineering faculty. In addition, the students get an early introduction to university policies and procedures, as well as to the university's computing environment.

Faculty members who teach these courses need to be prepared to work hard. There are unique challenges to teaching a course at a distance, and most involve a significant amount of the faculty member's time. They need support with their classes and training in effective teaching. Site directors have many responsibilities, particularly advising and instructing students. They need to work effectively with the course instructors to ensure that they have all of the materials and knowledge necessary to provide adequate help to their students. The technology must also support both synchronous and asynchronous delivery. Students greatly appreciate having the ability to ask questions during class, even if they don't actually do so. However, asynchronous means must be available for classes that are missed for whatever reason.

This model is extremely popular with many in the higher education community in North Carolina. Community colleges and other UNC system universities are clamoring to offer similar programs at their institutions. However, as we mentioned, our model, as it exists today, is not scalable because of its high cost. Another concern is the quality of instruction, which ranges from superb to poor.

In the future, we foresee a model that includes high-quality asynchronous delivery of lectures - delivered by the best instructors available for the subject matter - with office hours and problem sessions held synchronously through videoconferencing. Site directors would become regional directors, managing a few institutions in a region and maintaining the responsibility for recruiting and advising. Students would then travel to the regional headquarters for labs, but would attend the lectures at their home institutions. We believe that this model will provide a high-quality educational experience for all students at an affordable cost to the universities.


Online Resources

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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