Distance education: Taking the body out of 'student body'

Posted: Sunday, October 14, 2001

The professor wears a microphone and an earpiece, looks into a television camera, watches for computer messages and listens for phone calls.

A big challenge: How to create a good learning environment

Creating a community with students who are hundreds of miles from each other and the instructor is one of the challenges schools face in distance education.

"In person there is the environment of the classroom, and the instructor has the opportunity to shape and mold and influence that environment in a very personal way with his own presence," said Art Petersen, who taught at the University of Alaska Southeast for 25 years.

But there are many ways instructors can foster a good learning environment for distance students, said Petersen, now an advisor to students seeking a UAS bachelor's degree in liberal arts at a distance.

Communication among people isn't based on how many are speaking, but on the quality of the communication, said Ken White, who teaches online courses for the University of Phoenix, as well as courses on a community college campus in Washington state. He is co-author of "The Online Teaching Guide."

"I encourage people in my class to keep in mind that there's another person at the end of the computer, and that person deserves respect and has feelings," White said from Everett, Wash.

In his online courses students discuss his lectures on electronic bulletin boards, and he responds individually to their comments. Students' ideas are challenged, and the result is new ideas, he said.

Those discussions are possible because his online students take the course at the same time. Every student in his online courses participates in discussions, which isn't the case on campus, White said. And because online students communicate in writing, they have time to be more thoughtful and to see the logic of their arguments. Still, he said, it's not as personal as face-to-face discussions.

The methods of distance education fall into two broad categories. In courses by mail and in many Internet classes, students work independently and at their own pace. In courses offered by telephone audioconference or satellite TV, students at various sites meet at the same time.

Mail and Internet courses don't allow for much of a community of learners. But students strengthen their ability to teach themselves, by reading and writing, and they gain from the instructor's one-to-one attention.

"I do form a rapport with my students in a way I never developed before in my classroom," said Lynda Sanders, who teaches elementary students by correspondence for the state-run Alyeska Central School.

Even in distance classes in which students meet at the same time, such as an audioconference, instructors face the challenge of putting the community in communication.

"The big problem for any distance education methodology and what they're trying to always get at is interaction between the student and the material, the instructor and other students," said Jonathan Anderson, who teaches in the UAS public administration master's program.

Anderson fosters interaction by creating support groups of students who use an online discussion forum.


But "it's harder to interact because (Anderson) has to talk to that camera, harder to have a conversation or a discussion," said graduate student Jennifer Gorsuch, who attends courses on the Juneau campus.

As Anderson conducts his class, producers in a control booth monitor electronic messages from students and watch five phone lines, four of which can be active at one time.

At a session last month, the distance students weren't just passively watching a TV show. But because it takes a little longer to phone in, they chose to communicate by electronic message. They weren't engaged in an immediate back-and-forth discussion with Anderson or other students.

But it was the distance students who made most of the comments in class. Many professors wouldn't be surprised at that.

"The people who don't say a lot in class, because they're self-conscious and they're not assertive, will just talk and talk and talk and amaze you with the depth and breadth of their meaning" in distance classes, said Jason Ohler, who teaches graduate online courses in educational technology at UAS.

Audioconferences are like classrooms, said Tammy Powers, a bachelor's degree student at UAS from Wadleigh Island, near Prince of Wales Island, who has attended college on campus in Washington state.

"I think there's more interaction (in audioconferences) because there's not that embarrassment of being in class and afraid you've got the wrong answer," she said. "Everybody seems to get involved."

"Stand by," producer Gloria Merry tells him from the control booth. "Five, four, three, two, one and you're up."

Up is Jonathan Anderson, assistant professor of public administration at the University of Alaska Southeast, who is teaching a graduate class from a room in the Egan Library on a recent Thursday night.

A few students are seated in the small room, its rows of chairs stepped like a theater. Cameras point at the students, Anderson and the top of his desk. A microphone faces the students.

But more students are sitting in seven other locations, such as Whitehorse in the Yukon, Alaska military bases and Valdez, Ketchikan and Kodiak. They're watching and listening on satellite TV. With computers on and phones ready, they can talk to the class.

That's not unusual anymore. Distance education teaching students who aren't in the classroom is becoming more common in the United States, educators agree.

"Oh, it's definitely a growing phenomenon," said Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium in Lincoln, Neb. It's growing so fast there isn't an up-to-date, accurate count of students, courses or programs, she said.

The number of distance college students, courses and programs doubled from 1995 to 1998, according to the most recent information from the National Center for Educational Statistics. The center estimated there were 1,632,000 college students enrolled in distance classes in 1998.

College students can get undergraduate and graduate degrees without leaving their homes, including programs from some of America's traditional schools as well as colleges that specialize in distance education, such as the for-profit University of Phoenix.

The burgeoning programs, fueled partly by the Internet, concern some educators, who believe students, particularly undergraduates, lose valuable experiences if they're not on campus.

They're also concerned distance courses, especially on the Internet, might train students in skills but not educate them in the broadest sense of interacting with different types of people and delving deeply into a subject.

"I'm not sure I want to be managed by someone who got their MBA online without human interaction," said Jamie Horwitz, spokesman on higher education issues for the American Federation of Teachers, a union with 125,000 college professors among its million members.

Others say distance programs often draw students who wouldn't be on campus anyway. And they say a wealth of research shows there's no difference in quality between distance and in-person courses. A student is more engaged in the material from a course on the Internet than in a large lecture hall, Anderson said.

And as new technology is used in courses on campus, the line between distance and in-person classes is becoming blurred.

A student in the dorm might fire up her computer to research online, engage in online discussions with classmates, review a streaming video of the professor's lecture or watch a math problem being solved on a virtual whiteboard.

"Distance education has forced us to think about what is learning, what is education, how does it really happen," Anderson said.

The right technology: Finding it at a distance

Tammy Powers, a University of Alaska Southeast undergraduate student living on Wadleigh Island, said it will be hard to work by herself on her science labs, which come by mail, complete with animals to be dissected.

Yvonne Boudreau, a UAS student in Kodiak, said she's a visual learner. "So things that are on the Internet or video will be easier for me. Correspondence will probably be the hardest," she said.

Each method of distance education carries its own challenges for faculty and students.

Instructors have to play to the medium's strengths and avoid its weaknesses, said Jason Ohler, professor of education at UAS. A good lecturer may not do well in an audioconference because the students can't pick up the professor's body language or facial expression, he said.

Bill Maloch teaches high school math by correspondence for the state-run Alyeska Central School. "I liken it to describing a spiral staircase without using your hands. You have no facial expressions, so you have to know each kid based on the comments they write back," he said.

Distance instructors often combat the limitations of a teaching style by drawing from several methods, such as arranging online discussion groups for correspondence classes, or sending videos of lectures by mail.

UAS uses satellite TV to present the content of some courses, but compensates for the lack of back-and-forth communication with online bulletin boards and telephone access to the classroom, said Susan Warner, director of digital media services.

But colleges don't necessarily choose the best method of instruction for the content. Colleges don't tell professors how to teach their courses, either the ones on campus or by distance. The method of instruction may be what the professor is comfortable with or has time to learn, or what the college can afford to offer.

UAS in Juneau has one studio and classroom for satellite courses, so only one course can be offered in each time slot.

There are other technical limitations. About 100 Alaska communities have a level of modem connectivity to the Internet, called band width, that allows for Web pages that can contain streaming audio or still graphics, Warner said. Only about 10 Alaska locations have a broader capacity, one that can take Web pages with streaming video and audioconferences.

"At the present time, band width rules in terms of what you can do," Warner said.

That's a significant limitation because online courses are becoming the predominant method of distance courses in the United States.

The increasing reliance on the Internet to deliver entire distance programs concerns the American Federation of Teachers, a union that includes college professors among its members.

"We think part of the learning process is people learning different learning styles because that's the way life works," said Jamie Horwitz, spokesman for higher education issues for the American Federation of Teachers. "But putting it through this funnel where things tend to look the same way online, it tends to eliminate that opportunity."

That depends on how computers are used.

Steve Johnson, assistant professor of computer information and office systems at UAS, has created 14 computer CDs with voice-over explanations that walk students through lectures and tasks in his course on Adobe Photoshop, a computer graphics program. "So it's like they're peeking over my shoulder," he said.

Johnson said the CDs allow students to watch the lectures about theory first or do the practical tasks first, depending on how they best learn. "Whereas in a classroom you got to do it the way the professor does it."

Keeping up with technology requires a big commitment from distance educators.

Competing for students

For UAS, distance education is a way to reach more people and to preserve programs that might fade away if the school had to rely on students on campus, the college said in its 1999 accreditation report.

This fall, UAS's three campuses are serving 772 distance students in 112 Alaska communities, the school said.

Last year about a quarter of UAS's credit hours were from students not on campus, said Provost Robbie Stell. "They're really important to our viability and getting critical mass in some of the programs," she said.

At the same time, distance education is another way to draw Alaskans away from the state university.

Western Governors University, for example, gives students credits for passing competency exams and lets them complete their degrees by taking distance courses from about 45 institutions across the country.

"This allows you to fit it to your schedule," said Terry Hamm of Anchorage, who got an associate of arts degree from Western Governors University while studying textbooks on her own and passing competency tests.

"The chief advantage, really, is flexibility for people who are in remote locations, who are place-bound, or who are working shifts that make attendance impossible," said the university's provost, Chip Johnstone, from Salt Lake City, Utah.

Most college students who take courses by distance aren't just out of high school, and often they have families and jobs. The average age of students at Western Governors University is about 40.

Distance students usually have some college credits but want to complete a degree and enter a new field. Or they want to advance professionally by getting continuing-education credits or a graduate degree.

The old model of education tells students who want to go to college: Move your family, give up your job, leave your community and go somewhere else, said Jason Ohler, a professor of education at UAS.

The new model says, "We're going to do our best to come to you," according to Ohler.

Yvonne Boudreau, 44, of Kodiak is just starting her distance courses for a bachelor's degree from UAS. She hopes it will lead to a teaching certificate. She married when she was halfway through college in another state, about 25 years ago, and moved to be where her husband's fishing jobs were.

"I've been sitting here with no options I knew of," Boudreau said. "To find an option is pretty exciting, where I don't have to move away from my family."

Education today has to meet a variety of student goals, Ohler said. As people seek continual education for their profession, they want to be able to take courses anytime and from anywhere.

The American Federation of Teachers, in its guidelines for distance education published in May 2000, said skeptics are concerned that it's hard for students to understand difficult material without face-to-face interaction with an instructor.

The report also questions whether distance methods are effective for all types of classes, such as science labs, and whether limits on the availability of library resources and other learning materials impair distance courses.

Professors who teach by distance say there are a lot of resources online, including the texts of academic journals and books. And distance students usually can get books mailed to them from college libraries.

But the UAS accreditation report found that only 53 percent of distance students in the fall of 1998 had used materials from the school's Egan Library, and called that "disturbing."

Wonder Russell, 22, has experienced classes on campus and by distance, and found them useful at different stages of her life.

She's taken hands-on TV production courses in England and filmmaking courses in Los Angeles. In two recent years at the UAS campus in Juneau she was active in student government, clubs and the student newspaper.

"What I love about UAS is it has the most amazing community I've found of any university, and I've been in a few," Russell said. "I think there's a lot to be said for being there on campus and being actively involved, but it depends on the person."

But Russell now lives in Montreal, where day-to-day activities have replaced the social experiences she would get on campus. She is wrapping up her UAS bachelor of liberal arts degree through correspondence classes. She also has tasted distance education in an Internet course from a Montreal university.

"You're still learning," Russell said about her distance courses. "It's just the onus is on the student to make the learning experience happen. There's no one holding your hand."

Doing well or dropping out

In a 1999 survey of college instructors by the American Federation of Teachers, 70 percent said no more than half the classes in an undergraduate degree program should be delivered by distance.

Yet the survey of 200 college instructors who teach distance courses and, very often, a similar course on campus showed that 169 would teach distance education again. Of those 169, nearly all felt their students performed as well or better than students in traditional classes.

A lot of research bears that out, said Susan Warner, manager of digital media services at UAS. In her own study of 472 UAS students in 1995, she found no statistical difference in the average grade of students who took the same course in-person, in the Juneau classroom of a satellite TV-offered class, and at a distance.

But a major gap in research is comparisons of the effectiveness of entire academic programs offered by distance with on-campus programs, said a report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

The research also doesn't adequately explain the high dropout rates by distance students, thus tilting the results toward those who are successful, said the report, which was commissioned by the two big national teachers' unions.

In Warner's study, nearly a quarter of distance students didn't complete the course, compared with about one in 10 of the on-campus students.

Distance education places special demands on students, said students and educators.

"You really have to be disciplined to finish everything timely, to keep on track," said Tammy Powers, 30, who lives on Wadleigh Island near Prince of Wales Island and is in her second year of a distance program to get a bachelor of liberal arts degree from UAS.

Boudreau, the UAS student in Kodiak, studies at home, where her family sees her as mom, "a traditional serving role," she said. Recently, they expected her to clean up after dinner even though she had homework to do. "I was kind of frustrated with that. 'I have things to do too, guys.' "

Distance education isn't going to replace residential colleges, educators said.

Young people fresh out of high school should, in the vast majority of cases, go to a college or university and have that on-site experience, Ohler said.

"That is because we want them to do more than 'learn math.' We want them to develop social skills, experience a learning environment, log away a storehouse of on-site experiences that they could not get online," he said.

Western Governors University Provost Johnstone agreed.

"I don't think any one system should trounce the other, or trump the other, or think the other isn't relevant," he said. "They're all relevant."


Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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