Interactive Distance Education Alliance (IDEA): Collaborative Model Delivers On Demand

Dr. Ray M. Haynes, Professor and Co-Director Dr. Reza Pouraghabagher, Professor and Co-Director Engineering Management Program and Anna Seu, Director Instructional Technology Development California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo, Calif.

The Engineering Management Program at Cal Poly offers graduate students a dual-degree over a 24-month residency. The program is a partnership between the Colleges of Business and Engineering and 17 California-based organizations. A research study of Cal Poly alumni indicated that potential students and their employers were both highly interested in on-site, on-demand graduate programs. 

The IDEA proposal -- a distance learning solution -- was presented to several companies, with two firms, Intel and TRW, agreeing to fund initial study projects beginning in January 1996. The following highlights the lessons learned going rapidly from a feasibility study to a pilot course in manufacturing strategy that was delivered over the World Wide Web. 

Feasibility Study

The initial IDEA effort was dedicated to researching five areas of distance learning with respect to the feasibility of actually delivering graduate courses using available technology. 

The areas evaluated and our preliminary results are noted below: 

Area # 1. Customer Requirements: specifically the need to deliver education to industry employees at the workplace or home locations. A survey of 6,200 Cal Poly engineering alumni confirmed that there was a high level of demand for distance programs encompassing both continuing education and graduate degree programs in both business and engineering disciplines. Focused interviews with human resource management at several companies confirmed their desire for employees to pursue life-long learning/education ìon-demand.î 

Area # 2. Delivery Technology: an evaluation of available and compatible technologies that could be used to meet the demand in Area #1. The technology focus was identified as being two-way interactive teleconferencing and/or some form of Web-based delivery depending upon needs, costs and functional capabilities. 

Area # 3. Academic Pedagogy: an investigation of changes to traditional delivery modes that are necessary to deliver course material in a technology-intensive environment. Ongoing experimentation using interactive teleconferencing showed that most faculty could readily adapt to the electronic classroom with minimal training and the appropriate technical support. However, using the Web as a delivery vehicle is considerably more complex. There are additional faculty preparation needs; technical resource requirements translate to relatively high development costs; plus certain technology and network constraints can come into play. Finally, throughout all facets of courseware design and development, deliberate care must be given to mitigate potentially passive student interaction. 

Area # 4. Administrative Procedures: research into accreditation issues, alternative structural mechanisms to offer the course, and ensuring the ìfitî of distance education into the universityís mission. After extensive discussion, the decision was made to initially use only existing courses delivered via Cal Polyís Extended Education program to eliminate any issues that might develop with experimental course material. 

Area # 5. Competitive Analysis: included a broad assessment of what other institutions were delivering and the modes of distance education utilized. While hundreds of universities have some form of distance education and offer a variety of programs, delivery is most often an adjunct to existing programs rather than stand-alone in nature. However, there is some consensus that distance education is the wave of the future and any institution not offering some courseware in this mode will be at a significant competitive disadvantage going into the next century. The very fact that major research schools such as MIT and Stanford are actively pursuing distance learning programs suggests that other universities should initiate experimental projects using this concept. 

Synthesis of the Feasibility: Study findings resulted in the conclusion that distance education was generally feasible for Cal Poly using either an electronic classroom (equipped with interactive audio/video) or some form of Web-based structure. Based on these initial, highly favorable results, Intel Corp. agreed to fund the design, development and delivery of a prototype (pilot) course with a very ambitious ìtime-to-marketî schedule of approximately 90 days.  

Pilot Course Is in Mfg. Strategy

The course selected to demonstrate ìproof-of-conceptî was an existing elective, graduate course (from Cal Polyís current catalog) in Manufacturing Strategy. 

System Design: The decision was made to incorporate team teaching into the course pedagogy, using faculty from the Colleges of Business and Engineering, plus include several modules delivered by industry management. The rationale behind this collaboration was to enrich the overall course by providing the managerial and technical backgrounds using theoretical foundations, then incorporate the real-world perspectives from practitioners. The final design followed a structured format that incorporated video, audio, slides, handouts and various electronic interfaces for student-teacher interaction. 

The pilot course design was predicated on being able to use Intelís intranet with T1-level network availability, high-end configuration PC platforms and plug-in software. High bandwidth was a design parameter not realized all the way directly to the student desktop; instead it was based on the number of online users. At peak usage, module download times were of critical concern, however at this stage, data about this is not available for evaluation. 

Hardware requirements were a 100MHz Pentium processor with 32MB RAM, at least 20MB of available hard drive space and a Windows-compatible sound card with speakers. Software requirements are Windows 3.1, 95 or NT systems with Shockwave! and Vivo Active Player plug-ins loaded. (Vivo is a plug-in for browsers that lets one view ìstreaming video,î i.e., one d'esnít have to download the entire file and then view it.) A network browser must be locally installed with Netscape Navigator 2.02 or higher and, of course, students must have access to Intelís intranet. 

Content Development: Seven major themes were selected for course coverage, for a total of 20 modules. Each module is equivalent to two-hour class sessions. For example, Modules 1 and 2 covered the History of Manufacturing using the following elements: 

  • Introductory video by faculty (taped & digitized for Vivo access);
  • Slides with real-time audio using Macromedia Director (access via Shockwave);
  • Intel management video (taped & digitized for Vivo access);
  • ssignment using Harvard Business Review handouts;
  • Homework submission using e-mail with attachments;
  • Application video (stock tape digitized for Vivo access);
  • Animations using Shockwave!;
  • Virtual office hours using N-Chat software via Netscape Navigator;
  • Bulletin Board (newsgroups) for posting assignments (HTML);
  • Online exam taking, scoring and posting using CGI-scripting; and
  • Learning assessment survey using HTML.
  • Course Implementation: The 20 modules were developed by Cal Poly technical personnel and produced into an inventory of formatted files. An external systems integrator was chosen by Intel to provide Web page design and incorporate the files into the final format. Once completed, the entire ìcourseware packageî was exported to an internal Intel server that provided firewall protection for their intranet. 

    A student has the option to enroll in the course for either audit or credit. If credit is selected, an online registration form must be filled out and ìe-mailedî to Cal Poly Extended Education with the necessary fees. The existing University Extension fee structure was used, which translated to a charge of $484 for the four-unit course. 

    Our current design requires periodic feedback from the student -- including an exam and learning assessment survey for every four modules before access is given to the next set of courseware modules. Student-faculty interaction is facilitated by ìvirtual office hours,î that are held twice weekly using a chat room format. 

    Seven Lessons Learned

    This pilot course in Manufacturing Strategy was a tremendous educational experience for all parties involved. While we learned continually throughout the project, seven key lessons were identified specifically from the academic institution perspective: 

    Lesson # 1. There must be a designated project manager responsible for overall coordination. In the pilot course described, three teams of personnel had to coordinate with each other, one from the university and two external groups. Within Cal Poly, there were three sub-teams representing faculty, instructional technology and the College of Businessí technical support. External groups were Intel Advanced Technology Operations personnel and the designated system integration firm, Webolution. 

    Lesson # 2. A reasonable project schedule must be established, agreed upon and contractually committed early in the design phase. Funding requirements should be clear to facilitate resource flow. The schedule should also have a designated ìkeeperî to coordinate and communicate all updates and changes in a timely and accurate manner. 

    Lesson # 3. This type of development is labor intensive, therefore both faculty and technical resources must be identified and committed to the schedule at an early stage. Faculty release time generally has a 3-6 month lead time and must be accommodated with all necessary administrative approvals. 

    Lesson # 4. ìReality checksî must be done weekly. Then all slack and delayed activities noted in these project evaluations must be incorporated into the schedule. As noted in Lesson #2, there must only be one Master Project Schedule, updated weekly and shared with all. 

    Lesson # 5. Marketing a new concept within a university is a complex task, and critical to success is ensuring that all administrative issues are addressed. Faculty using a dynamic "team" approach to resolving issues headed up our feasibility study project. Mini task forces were created to address specific opportunities and then disbanded when resolution was reached. Initial support of ìchampionsî from management (in this case, the Cal Polyís President and the Business and Engineering Deans) was critical. 

    Lesson # 6. External marketing to the potential student population is equally critical to secure the desired population for the course. Our pilot course was targeted specifically at 12,000 Intel employees in six domestic locations including Arizona, California, Oregon and New Mexico. 

    In retrospect, the marketing activity should have begun at least 30 days earlier to attract graduate students that may be starting semesters in late August or early September at their ìlocalî institutions. Cal Polyís winter quarter began in late September and many potential students may have been already enrolled in other courses. 

    Lesson # 7. Technology provides both opportunities and constraints. Courseware design must be made to a baseline set of parameters agreed to by all parties and then adhered to. Any ìin-processî changes create confusion at the least, often resulting in significant ìreworkî of previous activities. 


    Considered from the perspective of a ìrapid prototype,î the pilot course was successful. Using an existing course with experienced faculty alleviated many potential administrative barriers. 

    This course in Manufacturing Strategy is currently being delivered to students at Intel for both audit and credit in the four geographical locations noted previously. Concurrently, graduate students at Cal Poly are ìacceptance testingî the courseware on a local basis. Based on their combined feedback, plus an extensive ìpost mortemî of the development process, the plan is to refine the product as necessary and continue offering the course in other academic quarters throughout the year. 

    The Cal Poly vision is that other courses in both Business and Engineering can be developed to eventually provide a courseware inventory so that a non-resident student could take an entire degree program using distance learning. 

    Collaboration among faculty, colleges and technologists is critical to enable cross-discipline learning. Adding corporate participation creates a highly synergistic environment. Industry can often provide initial funding for both research and development, then directly benefit from the products that result. 

    Ray Haynes is a professor of Management and Co-Director of the Engineering Management Program in the College of Business at Cal Poly. Haynes has been an academic for eight years following 20 years in the computer electronics and aerospace industries. E-mail: [email protected] 

    Reza Pouraghabagher is a Professor of Industrial-Manufacturing Engineering and Co-Director of Cal Polyís Engineering Management Program. Reza has taught at Cal Poly for the past 17 years and has consulted with a number of companies in the fields of manufacturing systems and re-engineering. E-mail: [email protected] 

    Anna Seu has been the Director for Instructional Technology Development for Cal Poly during the past three years, following 20 years with IBM in various marketing and technical positions. E-mail: [email protected] 


    1. Gates, Bill (1996), The Connected Learning Community: A New Vision for Technology in Education, Microsoft Text & Video.
    2.  Grove, Andy (1996), Only the Paranoid Survive, Currency-Doubleday.
    3. Stoll, Clifford (1996), Silicon Snake Oil, Bantam-Doubleday.


    Products or companies mentioned: 

    Vivo Active Player; VIVO, Waltham, MA, 

    Director, Shockwave!; Macromedia, Inc., San Francisco, CA, (800) 945-9085, 

    N-Chat; Netscape Communications Corp., Mountain View, CA, (800) NET-SITE, 

    Webolution, Thousand Oaks, CA, (818) 990-1987,

    This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.