learning: a virtual reality education
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
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
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."
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
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 positive
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]