Vol. 16 : No. 7< >
Editor’s Note: This is skillful, documented, in-depth Distance Learning praxis. The checklists developed by both the professor, Dr. John Sutton, and the facilitator, Dr. Tammy Gammon, are informative, positive guides for effective facilitation of an interesting and demanding Bachelor's of Science degree program.
“Live” Long-Distance Education: A Perspective and Keys for Success
Tammy Gammon and John Sutton
Description of Program
North Carolina State University awarded Bachelor of Science in Engineering/ Mechatronics Concentration degrees for the first time in May 2002. The degree program is particularly unique because it is offered at NC State’s Engineering Program at UNC-Asheville, about 250 miles from NC State’s main campus in Raleigh. NC State’s Two-Plus-Two program long established at UNC-Asheville was expanded, and the four-year degree program was initiated in 1999 to meet the need of industry for a skilled, technical workforce in the western part of the state.
In the first two years of the BSE/Mechatronics Concentration program, students enroll in courses taught mainly by UNC-Asheville faculty members. These courses include humanities, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and computer science. Students also enroll in sophomore, junior and senior level electrical and mechanical engineering courses delivered “live” over the Internet to Asheville. The courses are predominately taught by NC State faculty from Raleigh, although some courses are taught by professors at NCA&T in Greensboro and UNC-Charlotte, other universities in the North Carolina state university system. Presently, the upper level courses are transmitted point-to-point to the program at UNC-Asheville. Sophomore level courses are often transmitted to several remote sites simultaneously.
The long-distance classroom is equipped with two 54-inch CRT monitors and a 50-inch LCD. The LCD and one of the CRT monitors usually display a digital transmission of the SMART Board (a special marker board) or PowerPoint lecture slides. One monitor usually shows a video image of the professor giving the lecture. The desks are equipped with individual “hot” microphones, and the distance students are free to ask questions at any time. Figure 1 shows the professor’s vantage point of a classroom on NC State’s main campus in Raleigh. The monitors recessed in the back wall show the professor as he lectures and the classroom at the remote site (only the empty front desk can be seen from this photograph). Figure 2 shows a closer shot of the two monitors located at the main campus. One monitor shows live coverage of the professor and the other monitor shows the classroom at the remote site in Asheville, North Carolina.
The Internet-based videoconferencing technology used for most of the point-to-point distance courses transmits data to the remote site at a data rate of 768 kbs. At this rate the video signal of the professor or overhead note is transmitted at a rate of 25 to 28 frames per second, although approximately half of the frames are repeated, so the “true” video rate is probably close to 15 frames per second. The audio and video signals are transmitted as separate, independent digital data streams and are converted back to analog signals in the distance classroom. A direct digital transmission of the SMART Board, PowerPoint lecture slide, or other information being conveyed by “data sharing” software like NetMeeting is displayed on the LCD or CRT monitor. Since the information is being transmitted via the Internet, audio clipping and jerky or smearing video may occur when Internet traffic is heavy, particularly when congestion occurs at either campus’s local area network (LAN).
Figure 1. NC State, Raleigh, NC. ECE455 Computer Control of Robots, Spring 2002
Figure 2. Professor Grant (left) and Live Shot of Remote-Site Classroom in Asheville, NC. (right)
Figure 3. Remote-Site in Asheville, NC. MAE316 Strength of Mechanical Components, Spring 2002.
A “Facilitator’s” Perspective
Tammy: The adage “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is” rings true of my employment interview. In 1999, I was finishing my Ph.D. work in Electrical Engineering at Georgia Tech when I interviewed for this position. My background was in electrical power systems, and I was concerned about my ability to effectively “facilitate” the electrical engineering courses required for the BSE/Mechatronics degree. “Facilitators” perform many of the tasks that teaching assistants sometimes perform in a conventional educational environment. Facilitator duties may include proctoring exams, grading, collecting homework, distributing handouts, answering questions, conducting recitation sessions, and supervising the labs. The facilitator’s duties depend on the structure of the course and on the level of assistance desired by the professor. I was told that the electrical engineering courses were taught from NC State and the professors would provide all of the materials and support I needed to assist them in the courses and to teach the labs. At the time, I might have envisioned a complete, professionally developed package of course notes, assignments, and solutions, as well as detailed lab instructions and schematics. I may have even half expected instructional support videos and dedicated technical support lines.
In the past three academic years, I have facilitated nine different long-distance courses; each course had a laboratory component. The program has been in a state of development and there have not been any comprehensive support sources with solutions to the many technical and non-technical problems that I have encountered. The job has been interesting and I have learned a lot from the position. My only regret about the position is that there have been times when students would have benefited more if they had support faculty with a stronger background in electronics and computer hardware. Although I am now personally much more effective in the position, the effectiveness of many distance programs is limited due to the dependence of having highly trained personnel at the remote sites. Many colleges and universities around the country have long distance programs, but many administrators still do not perceive that the educators at the main sites must have the additional financial and human resources required for developing assignments and laboratories for the remote site, and providing technical or teaching support to the remote sites. I have worked with many professors and, to my knowledge, none of them was given additional resources or release time from other duties. Despite my efforts to become superwoman, I realize that the highest quality long-distance education programs spring from a well-funded main site with the resources to plan, develop, and deliver a long-distance curriculum.
My other epiphany relates to the lack of homogeneity of distance and local students and their education. The students enrolled in NC State’s Engineering Program at UNC-Asheville are not receiving an educational experience that is identical to the one experienced by NC State’s main campus students. They are in a different location with fewer resources and in a different collegiate environment. The university atmosphere is more similar to a community college than an engineering and research university. The students enrolled in our program are good people – some are older than traditional college students, many have significant work and/or family responsibilities, and a number have a long drive to campus. Although we have many bright students, most do not have the same focus on their college education as many of the more traditional students enrolled at the main campus. Some of our traditional-aged students entered the program because they benefit from more individual attention or because they were not initially accepted by NC State. Distance-education programs are most successful when they are tailored to suit the lifestyles and environment of the distance-education students. Colleges and universities must recognize and address the same fundamental aspect of distance education: Should two (or more) bodies of students possessing different characteristics and located in different environments be treated as one homogeneous group?
I have highlighted a few key steps for effective facilitation in Table 1. In addition, John and I have developed extensive bullet lists to help other long-distance professionals identify the smaller and larger issues needing to be addressed for the development of a successful long-distance program.
Table 1. Facilitator Checklist
A Professor’s Experience
John: Upon learning that I was going to teach my Digital Systems Interfacing course to a remote site, as well as my usual site, I was only worried about coordinating the lab part of the course. I had previously taught graduate level, non-laboratory courses for National Technological University from a studio, and I thought this would be a similar experience from the classroom perspective. There was a one-hour introduction on how to use the distance-learning classroom before classes started. I found the distance learning equipment easy to operate, and there were very few technical problems throughout the semester.
Digital Systems Interfacing teaches students about microprocessors, components and system hardware interfacing with microprocessors, and microcomputer software driving hardware. In my fifteenth year of teaching the course, I prepared as I normally do. I sat down for one-half hour the day before the lecture and outlined the main topics to be covered, listed the key points for each topic, glanced through any relevant material for topics I might have overlooked, and prepared a five-minute quiz. In order to know how well students are doing, I observe them during class, ask questions during lectures, and grade the student quizzes and tests. My normal approach to teaching worked well for the students in my classroom, but it was inadequate for the students at the distance-learning site. I do not feel that I really understood how to communicate, teach, and give the distance-learning students the best opportunity to learn until the course was nearly over.
My experience is probably not unique, but I was quite surprised to find that the distance-learning students were not electrical or computer engineering seniors but rather mechatronics students. Their course curriculum had fewer electrical and/or computer courses, which meant terminology and basic concepts, would not have been as familiar to them. The prerequisite courses were not a big issue, although it seemed that the long-distance students had not learned as much relevant material from the prerequisites. To make matters worse, the mechatronics students were under more pressure to do well. Normally, students can drop the course if it is too intense for them and take another to graduate, but the long distance students needed the course to graduate and had no alternative.
The distance students also seemed to approach school responsibilities differently than the local students. Many of the distance students were older, had jobs, and had a limited time on the remote campus. These students did much of their academic work on their own or in pairs and did not have study groups and a network of others to help them. I think that school was their third priority after family and work.
To their credit, the distance students faced a lot of difficulties related to the long-distance nature of the program. I did not view one of my lectures until late in the semester. I was shocked at how hard the lecture was to follow due to the limited viewing area, the delays in transmission (probably due to heavy Internet traffic), the difficulty in knowing where to focus attention, and the missing awareness element that exists from just being in the same room as the instructor. I did not realize until grading the midterm examination that the students were not grasping the concepts. The quizzes given each lecture did not require a deep understanding of the material. I did not have the opportunity to “read” the students’ faces and made the wrong assumption that the distance students understood the concepts on a level comparable to the students in the local classroom.
When I teach this course again in the fall 2002 to the local and distance students, I will do many things differently. Although my lack of understanding of distance learning was unfortunate, the course did turn out to be a success. Once it became clear what was needed to help the students and the facilitator, I worked to make sure that the students received plenty of attention. We instituted office hours twice per week and gave tutorials that seemed to make the difference.
In Table 2, I have summarized the factors involved in successfully teaching a long-distance course. Figure 4 shows the essential pathways for communicating with long-distance students. Furthermore, Tammy and I developed detailed bullet lists to help other professionals both at the main and remote sites identify the issues involved in creating a successful long-distance course.
Table 2. Professor Checklist
Figure 4. Communication Pathways between Professor and Distance Students
Keys to Successful “Live” Long-Distance Education
Before a course begins, the differences between the main campus and remote site must be acknowledged.
Once the differences between main campus and remote site are acknowledged, decide how or if the differences will be addressed.
Establish the facilitator’s role with the professor and the main-campus teaching assistants and laboratory supervisor.
Effectively Teach a Long-Distance Course
Be Reachable To Answer Questions
Establish Direct Communication with Distance Students
About the Authors
Tammy Gammon - Since August 1999, Tammy Gammon has been a visiting assistant professor at the NC State Engineering Program at UNC-Asheville, which offers a bachelors of science in engineering with a mechatronics concentration. She received the Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. While in graduate school, Tammy worked on a number of power issues, mainly focusing on arcing faults and electrical accidents. She is a registered professional engineer in the state of North Carolina. Contact Tammy at email@example.com
John Sutton - John Sutton is the Manager of the Industrial IT and Software Applications epartment for ABB Electric Systems Technology Institute (ETI). He has been a full and adjunct member of the faculty in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at North Carolina State University for over 15 years. He has won several awards for teaching excellence including the IEEE Education Society award for Innovations in Education. He holds both a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org.