Iowa's Approach to Distance Learning

DR. FRED REES, Associate Professor and DR. BARBARA RIPP SAFFORD, Associate Professor University of Northern Iowa Cedar Falls, Iowa The Iowa Communications Network (ICN), an information network for government and public service agencies, in the planning stages since the late 1970s, began operating its interactive video phase in the fall of 1993. The ICN runs over fiber optic cable laid throughout the state, with classroom connections (Points of Presence) in all 99 counties, primarily in high schools and community colleges. In addition to the county connections, the three state Regents institutions&emdash;Iowa State University, The University of Iowa and The University of Northern Iowa&emdash;had classrooms installed; private colleges and universities were also given the opportunity to join the system. ICN-oriented classrooms are modified or built new to accommodate the necessary required, standardized equipment, much of which came from Sony. ICN hardware includes an instructor's podium with microphone, an overhead camera, a variety of projection devices such as VCRs and slide projectors, a monitor, and a touchscreen (and/or mouse driven) computer used by the instructor to control cameras in the classroom and in each of the remote sites. Two large monitors in the room are for student viewing, while a large monitor behind students can display remote classrooms, regardless of what is on the main camera. Student microphones with levers stand on classroom tables; when a student presses on the lever, his/her picture automatically appears on both the podium's and rear monitors. The instructor may then send that picture to all sites so everyone can see the student who is talking. Any site can be used as either the point of origin or as a point of reception. It is the system's interactivity that makes it so powerful as a distance learning tool. Students and instructor can communicate instantly and can see each other, hear each other, even interrupt each other. Lectures need not be formal presentations; students can ask questions as if they were in a regular classroom. The ICN can be used for education in many ways. A high school foreign language teacher can transmit classes to a school without a foreign language instructor. An elementary school on the east side of the state can conduct a science experiment cooperatively with a class on the west side of the state. Teacher inservice programs can be shared by many districts. This article focuses on two specific programs. Use for Graduate Programs The University of Northern Iowa has a long tradition of training teachers in both its graduate and undergraduate programs. It also has a long-standing commitment to excellence in teaching that it guards as zealously for its extension programs as for its oncampus programs. The Graduate College maintains a residency requirement because it is expected that the resources of the campus are essential for a completed master's degree. The university also realizes its commitment to students in the western part of Iowa who do not have easy access to any of the state universities. Considering all of these parameters, two graduate programs decided to make use of the video classrooms at ICN's inception. Students and professors in these two programs learned together about the interactive video system as regular course content was delivered. Sites in central and western Iowa were selected based on need and interest. Decisions were made as to which courses could be adapted to the ICN, and total programs, including summer sessions were planned. Community college colleagues who had worked with similar local systems advised us that it would seem more natural to teach to a group of regular students simultaneously, so our oncampus students moved from normal classrooms to the oncampus ICN classroom and became part of our ICN groups. Graduate Music Program, the ICN Way The Master's of Music (music education emphasis) program needed to increase student enrollments in its graduate courses and also serve the educational needs of music teachers in remote parts of the state. Looking to the ICN as a vehicle for meeting these objectives, the music education graduate core subject, Foundations of Music Education, was implemented in fall of 1993. It was broadcast to sites in Estherville, Marshalltown, Jefferson and Garner, one night a week for three hours. To capitalize on the ICN's interactivity, the course was structured as a seminar; course texts and advanced reading assignments focused content for immediate discussion between students at the various sites. This reduced the need for long lectures and other extensive one-way presentations that would have been deadly in a televised medium. Thirteen students enrolled for the class. A second course, Research Methodology in Music Education, was offered in spring of 1994 to sites in Algona, Garner, Tama, Calmar and Jefferson one night a week for two hours, with ten registrants. A subject that demands access to library reference and circulation materials as well as to the UNI library catalogue and CD-ROM databases, this course focused as much on learning how to gain electronic access to information resources as it did to acquiring course content through the televised medium. The library made a special service available to ICN students to ensure their resource inquiries would be answered and interlibrary loan requests expedited. Students were given e-mail accounts. Questions could be posed to the course instructor or selected library personnel. Since the process of electronic data access was new to students, the course instructor and music librarian used part of one class to illustrate the entire log-on, CD-ROM database, library catalogue and e-mail facilities. This session was also videotaped and mailed to students so they could become familiar with the various data-access procedures at their own pace and on their own time. At this point, the prospect of using the ICN for implementing at least part of the Master's in Music degree seemed feasible. Combining ICN coursework with two summer residency periods at the UNI campus, a Master's course plan was devised and approved by the School of Music Graduate Faculty that would let graduate students meet all their course requirements over a three-year period. In turn, this spurred the adaptation of two courses, which were implemented over the summer of 1994. Exploiting Other Powers of the ICN The first one, entitled Developments and Trends in Music Education, addressed other capabilities of the ICN. Focusing on music technology for the music teacher in public schools, MIDI-based computer applications of hardware and software were demonstrated over a two-week, three-hours-per-night course period in June to 21 students in Algona, Cherokee, Forest City, Cresco, Marshalltown and Jefferson. Students were able to observe executions of music printing, music theory, music history, keyboard harmony and aural training programs using electronic keyboard, videodisc, CD-ROM, audio CD and musical sound. An unexpected dividend came with an invitation by the Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis' (IUPUI) School of Music to team-teach using presentations from their concurrently running week-long Music Technology conference/workshop with the UNI course instructor's planned class agenda. Via UNI's recently acquired satellite truck, two nights of interactive television presentations between ICN course sites and IUPUI were broadcast. The UNI course instructor taught both ICN and IUPUI students one night from the home campus; flying to Indianapolis the next day, he taught the second night from IUPUI. In addition, due to some scheduling conflicts and other commitments during the first week of the course for the UNI instructor, the course has to originate from different ICN sites. Thus, students observed the instructor teaching from Marshalltown, UNI, Indianapolis and Waterloo&emdash;a process that was actually quite simple since all ICN sites are similarly equipped and configured.


The fourth course (offered in July) was on developing navigational skills in electronic information access. This subject, Projects in Music Education, included four consecutive, three-hour nightly ICN broadcasts to 16 students at sites in Algona, Cherokee, Forest City and Jefferson. In addition to reviewing basic procedures, sessions on Gopher, FTP, Lynx, Archie, NewsNet and Lotus Notes conferencing were broadcast. Videotapes of all sessions were made from the live presentations and forwarded to students for reference. Except for a two-hour broadcast in the middle of the course that provided visual assistance with individual problems in using these resources, all communications were done through e-mail. Students' final assignments were forwarded to the instructor for evaluation, grading and returning, all within the e-mail facility. School Library Media Program Via ICN UNI's graduate library science program has produced a majority of the state's school library media specialists, but students who could not travel to the campus easily for day or evening courses had to spend four eight-week summer sessions on campus to complete the program. Many of our students are teachers with family, professional and community responsibilities for whom these summer requirements can be burdensome. The ICN program, however, completed one successful off-campus extension series in the southeastern part of Iowa in 1992, which involved a professor commuting once a week for five semesters and students spending only two summers on campus. This convinced us that the ICN was a way to reach our more remote students, enabling them to complete the program with only two summers in residence. The Library Science program's early goal was to establish four sites in central and western Iowa with four or five students enrolled at each site; actual enrollments at the sites have ranged from three to 12. In addition to our new students, continuing students have been able to complete course requirements in time to cut their summer session requirements. The first class, Library Materials for Children, included about 45 students; 20 on the campus and 25 off campus in the four sites. The ICN was new and there were some technical difficulties. As the state's experience with the network grew, however, technical problems departed. On the first night of classes a decision had to be made on whether to teach to only one site or to the other three; one site was sacrificed for the others. Knowing the system was new, videotaping had been planned, so tapes were sent to each student enrolled at the affected site. (Videotapes are not available to students for make-up classes as this defeats the interactive nature of the technology and also encourages absences in the long run.) Four-hour blocks are scheduled for the class. Instruction is from 6:00 p.m. to 9:40 p.m. and the last 20 minutes can be used as conference time with one site or one or more students. Class members were asked if they would prefer three-hour blocks for the second semester class, Library Materials for Young Adults, but it was unanimously decided that four-hour blocks (requiring fewer sessions) were best. Students still drive as much as two hours to get to an ICN site&emdash;including the main campus. The ICN encourages the use of a variety of presentation formats: slides, videotapes, videodiscs and computer projections can all be fed directly into the system. The overhead camera makes it possible to do demonstrations not easily done in a regular classroom. For example, fragile copies of old McGuffey readers could be seen close up by all students better than in any other class arrangement the instructor ever had. Critical reviews and examinations of picture books were also enhanced by the system. Video demonstrations work smoothly and slides can be zoomed in on to emphasize one element of the picture. The oncampus class had no trouble adjusting to using the classroom monitors for such demonstrations. Indeed, it was observed that most students in the transmitting classroom generally watch the instructor on the monitors rather than look at him or her directly. The presence of the oncampus class was a potential problem, as well as an advantage, compounded because they not only were there, but because the class was larger than any of the other sites. Likewise, when the instructor delivered a class from one of the off-campus sites, it was felt that site's students dominated the session. It is thus necessary to make a real effort to concentrate time and attention to students located at the sites not hosting the session. Instructors were not the only ones who visited other sites. One of our on-campus students was called across the state to attend to a family emergency. She missed her other classes, but was able to attend the ICN class. Because one of our sites is near Des Moines, Iowa's capital, several other students have attended class at that site while in the city for conferences. Behaviors, Attitudes and Evaluations Both the instructor and students adapted easily to the technology. Touchscreen-directed camera controls quickly became automatic. Students at the off-campus sites became their own technicians, adept at resetting camera angles and adjusting sound levels, or calling for help via the posted phone numbers to UNI or the central control hub. Because many of these particular students will find the ICN Point-of-Presence in their schools to be a part of their responsibilities as media specialists, it was important for them to become comfortable with the system and with the instructor's role. Student reports from the podium gave them experience in presenting and controlling presentations over the network. The system operates under the guidelines that the first student to touch a microphone has the floor in any discussion. During a discussion among 30 or 40 students the battle for the microphone is at least as frantic as trying to get a teacher to "call on" a student in class. One site, convinced their mikes were delayed, often had their own discussion since they couldn't get the system's attention. So sites did sometimes pull attention away from the class activity. Generally, however, site discussions are on task and related to course content. Instructors can easily monitor off-campus groups to regain their attention and input into the total class activity. One of the anticipated outcomes was the establishment of a site "identity" among the students at each site, and this did occur. Materials and ideas were exchanged; telephone trees established; mutual support developed. One method to encourage this was to have small-group discussions and projects at sites during a session and then report the results to the class as a whole, just as one d'es in a regular classroom. This proved very popular with the off-campus sites. Two sites were smaller than the others, and they were allowed to take over the system during these times to form one discussion group. Early in the ICN delivery it was discovered how important the connections between class nights were to students. Oncampus students can drop by a professor's office, schedule appointments, walk down the hall with them, etc. Even in earlier off-campus extension courses, students knew they could talk with the professor before or after class and during breaks. It became obvious that the very interactivity of ICN courses encouraged the need for interactivity between class sessions. A variety of strategies were implemented. An hour and a half of "office hours" were reserved just for ICN students' phone calls. Messages could also be left on answering machines at work and at home. Students used fax machines to send and receive information about assignments. Everyone used regular mail service. But the most effective way of communicating turned out to be e-mail. ICN students have regular campus computer accounts and several have Internet accounts. The program will soon require students to have computer access at home, school or through public libraries for entry into a library science ICN program. One student regularly sent in assignments by e-mail and this will be encouraged. Students from various sites also began to use e-mail to communicate with each other. Student assessment of ICN delivery of courses has been positive. A general reaction is that it is not as good as in-person instruction, but students are pleased that is possible to take coursework at all, and appreciate that the ICN allows and encourages interactivity&emdash;surely one of the keys to excellence in teaching and learning. Fred Rees is Division Chair and Graduate Coordinator of Music Education in the University of Northern Iowa's School of Music. He teaches graduate research, computer technology applications in music, studio double bass and music education courses. Prior to his UNI appointment, Rees was Program Director for Music Education at New York University. Between 1978 and 1986, he was a lecturer in music at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. E-mail: [email protected] Barbara Safford has been at the University of Northern Iowa since 1990. She teaches information materials and curriculum courses in the Library Science program in the College of Education. Before coming to UNI, Safford taught at Kutztown University and was a school librarian in Maryland and Ohio, and a public library director in Pennsylvania. E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.