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Distance learning: a virtual reality education

Distance learning is the latest wave in classroom technologyAsk your grandfather what distance learning is and he'll tell you it's walking ten miles through six feet of snow, uphill, to get to school every day. Ask your father and he'll tell you it's sitting in the back row of the giant university lecture hall looking down on an instructor the size of an amoeba. But ask your son and he'll tell you it's the latest wave in classroom technology designed to put the world at your fingertips without ever leaving home.

"Classroom Technology" is as common a phrase in the field of education today as the "three R's." From kindergarten to college, the keyboard has become the #2 pencil of the future. Most young adults entering colleges and universities across the country this fall are computer literate. Their expertise is driving the demand for newer, faster and better ways to integrate technology in the classroom and bring them the best educational opportunities available. Distance learning is one answer to that call.


Advantages to students and instructors

The logistics of long-distance learning are as varied as the people who use it. The simplest scenario is that a few students at a variety of campuses gather at the appointed hour in classrooms equipped with videoconferencing equipment. Large monitors at the front of the classroom sit beneath videoconference cameras that encompass the room's occupants. Microphones dot the room, perhaps hanging from the ceiling. Video and audio signals are then transmitted over phone lines allowing the instructor to teach from one location, interacting with students at other campuses via the conferencing equipment. A document camera provides visual capabilities, or one can simply put a disc in the classroom computer and project that information to all locations. Homework assignments can be pulled off the web and sent in by e-mail.

One of the advantages to both university and student is that classes that might otherwise have been cancelled for lack of enrollment can now be offered through distance learning. A lot of distance-learning classes are specialized, with only a handful of people interested at each campus. By pulling the campuses together through videoconferencing, the class size becomes respectable and the class can be taught to everyone who wants it. In contrast, a class that has too much enrollment can be offered at two or three separate campuses at the same time, with the instructor teaching from only one. But that can become unwieldy and a heavy burden for an instructor who has to grade all those papers. Although the class size can be increased through distance-learning, it cannot be unlimited.

Distance learning has become a common tool at DePaul University's six Chicago area campuses, where Lorne Henne has been head of classroom technology for the past seven years. "Our suburban campuses are geared toward evening classes for the adult learner, who has a full time job during the day. Executives don't always have the time to travel across town to take a class." Instead, the student heads for the nearest DePaul campus at the appointed class time. While he or she may be sitting in Naperville, the instructor and a few other students may be in Lincoln Park or Des Plaines, but they're all being brought together through videoconferencing and they're all in the same class.


The Century Network

Four years ago, the Illinois Board of Higher Education released $15 million for the establishment of the Century Network, a statewide video network that linked most of the higher education institutions in the state. Today there are ten educational consortia made up of colleges, universities, hospitals, even high schools, that have pooled their knowledge and technology. DePaul is party to both the North Suburban and the West Suburban Post-Secondary Consortia. "Their goal is to serve the educational needs of the underserved population." says Henne. "To offer as much as possible to as many as possible." These institutions intertwine their class offerings and instructors so subjects don't overlap and all students get the most out of their time and money.

Also party to the West Suburban Consortium is Naperville Central High School. Students there had a unique experience last year when they got involved with the production of an original musical with students at three other high schools,Tom Bohdan in Naperville Central High School's distance learning classroom one in Texas and two in California. From the initial "How ya'll doin' up there?" from Plano, Texas, to the final face-to-face meeting in Redondo Beach, California, it was a real cultural awakening for all concerned. Under the tutelage of Naperville Central's media specialist, Tom Bohdan, the students spent months interacting and getting to know each other via distance learning equipment. "In the roles that different people played, student leadership began to emerge. It was interesting to watch them question each other," says Bohdan. It couldn't have come at a better time for this 23-year veteran of educational technology work, who is immersed in writing his doctoral thesis on integrating technology into the curriculum. In the early stages, the students interacted through audioconferencing and computers. Finally, with the help of videoconferencing systems, they saw each other for the first time. But it was the culminating trip to California that was the true test of success. "They learned from each other, and when they finally met each other, it became more than just a program."

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For students, flexibility is the key. People who choose long-distance learning are often attracted by the variety of choices available to them. Linda Pickering is the Director of Access for Students with Disabilities at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She didn't want to give up two years of work to get her master's degree, so she began course work on line through Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, California. "Younger people need the classroom setting, and all the personal contact that goes with it. I wouldn't recommend on-line learning to everybody. But for the older, returning student, it's perfect." Some of her classes have been completely on-line, pulling assignments off the web, interacting through chat rooms and e-mail--never actually meeting other students or the instructor face to face. Her latest class involves three months of reading and writing to prepare for an intensive one-week stay at Pacific Oaks.

Because the technology is growing so rapidly, educators involved with distance learning are making an extra effort not to lose the personal touch. Lorne Henne points out that interaction is critical to a good education. "The main purpose of going to the university is to learn how to reason and communicate with other people. DePaul is big on public service, putting out people who are committed to their communities. You can't teach that on an electronic bulletin board."


United Visual as a partner

United Visual has worked with both Lorne Henne at DePaul and Tom Bohdan at Naperville Central to make the distance-learning experience a positiveUnited Visual's headquarters in Itasca, Illinois one. Today we can offer videoconferencing codecs and rollabout systems, but for years we’ve supplied cameras, monitors, microphones, projectors, and sound systems.

By working hand in hand with the people at United Visual, both technology experts have been happy with the end result. "It was the quality of the people, the products and the service." says Bohdan."The people at United have a sincerity that's very hard to find."

As the cost of the needed technology has dropped considerably recently, we’re hoping to help many more of our customers take advantage of the benefits of distance learning. Technology can be used to enhance the personal touch as much as hinder it. United Visual can provide the right tools for the job, but what we learn from each other is what’s critical, no matter what the path. Our choices are virtually unlimited.

If you have questions for Tom Bohdan at Naperville Central, he would enjoy hearing from you. You can e-mail him at [email protected]