Remote Success

Learning on the college campus moved beyond the lecture hall years ago. Distance learning solutions are the wave of the future, as students and faculty demand more flexibility in learning and teaching. While a successful distance learning plan can bring in new talent, students, and income, an unsuccessful one can drive people away and be a costly endeavor.

“There are more than 6,000,000 students in this country taking online courses this year, which is a 500,000 increase from last year,” says Frank Mulgrew, president of the Online Education Institute at Post University in Waterbury, CT. “There has been a 10 percent growth in online enrollment, versus only two percent growth across the board. With these sort of numbers, it is easy to see why every institution of higher education is interested in distance learning.” We spoke with Mulgrew to find out what are some of the most common errors he sees when an institution makes the move to distance education.

1.  Don’t simply assume because you have good student services and good learning happening on campus that it will translate immediately online. They are different entities and they have to be thought of differently.

“Strides in the science of how the brain learns made in the past five to seven years are fascinating, and what we are learning is that some traditional learning tools do not create a positive learning environment,” says Mulgrew. “The lecture is one weakest tools in actually learning information. Online lectures have been found to be much more effective than face-to-face. We propose it may be because they can be watched many times. In the world of distance learning, we need to be thinking in terms of how do we take social arrangements of education and put it online, but also how do students best learn and how do we get them best engaged.”

When administrators at the University of Alberta in Edmonton decided to include a distance learning aspect to the physical therapy department, they had a very specific goal in mind. “There is a distinct lack of physical therapists in rural areas,” says David Polvere, manager of IT Systems and Support, Rehabilitation Medicine Faculty. “The hope is that by training these students without requiring them to leave those rural areas, they will choose to stay there and serve once their education is completed. To accomplish this, we took a really close look at the program to discern how the technology fits in with the curriculum. We had to analyze what portions could be delivered in this new way, and what sections had to be hands-on.”

2.  If you want to have quality programs, you must have quality student support services that are focused on the distance/online learner. The more bureaucracy you put up in front of a student, the greater likelihood that they (and you) will not succeed online.

“Distance learning provides the opportunity for a high level of engagement and activity,” says Mulgrew. “Faculty availability to the student is much more fluid and flexible when contact is not restricted to classroom time and office hours. Online students experience a front-row experience for everyone. Passive learning is not being assessed for distance learning as it is in a traditional classroom, where it is often calculated via attendance. In distance learning, the student has to be deeply engaged via email, discussion boards, etc. to get a good grade.”

“It was very important to us that the video conferencing system we chose not interfere with the students’ learning,” says Polvere. “We work very hard to make the remote students feel as much as part of the local class as possible. This included changing the curriculum to create opportunities to make them feel as close to being there as possible. In addition, we wanted to minimize the impact to faculty members. We wanted them to walk into a traditional classroom and teach normally with the TV monitors in the room. They do have to look to the screens to answer questions from remote students, but remote instructors control the cameras, so the on-site teachers do not have to.”

3.  Outsource where appropriate. Universities often waste time and money on developing technology internally that never ends up getting used, or reinvents the same thing that is already out there. Look for opportunities to outsource functions that will be beneficial for your students and for your institution as a whole.

“We use an external online tutoring service that would be very difficult for us to provide for the thousands of online students we support,” says Mulgrew. “It made fiscal sense and provides better service to our students than if we attempted to do it ourselves.”

University of Alberta administrators outsourced their distance learning program to LifeSize and their Connections cloud-based video collaboration solution. “Our service allows you to do more than just replicate content,” says Scott Lomond, VP and GM of cloud services at LifeSize. “We are managing a global directory. So as long as you know the connection ID of who you want to reach, you can contact people from other colleges, etc., and make a call just as if they were down the hall. With HD-quality video, multiparty calling, data sharing, directory services, security, and even a free “invite-a-guest” feature, Connections offers a full video solution with no infrastructure hardware requirements.”

4.  People need to stop focusing on the technology itself and start focusing on what the technology can achieve. Choosing technology to improve learning as opposed to choosing technology because it is the latest gizmo is essential. Technology is the means to the end, not the end in and of itself.

“The Connections infrastructure for conferencing from classroom to classroom allows institutions to bring in remote instructors from different areas who can talk to students from their office or home,” says Lomond. “They can teach a module without leaving their town.”

Polvere agrees, “With this technology, instructors can be mobile so they can attend conferences without missing a class, and we can bring in guest speakers without the added cost of airline tickets or hotel fees. During administrative meetings, attendees can attend via laptop, even if they’re out of the country.”

“The modern era of online education was based upon web-based tools that were cobbled together with the faculty member or administrator in mind,” Mulgrew concludes. “Only now, 15 years later, are we are seeing a shift where tools, learning management systems, etc., are putting students in the center of the design. Instead of pushing content to students, we are creating a design where the home page and newsfeed, chat rooms, emails, etc., all are centered around the student user. The student is now becoming the center of that universe.” 

Danielle Przyborowski is an Ohio-based writer with experience in educational and architectural topics.

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