E-mail and other Internet-based tools are the primary methods of communication among distance students today. Colley, who was ISDP director from 1981 to 1996, says written correspondence was used before the mid-’90s, along with “a fair amount” of long-distance telephone calls. “I remember in the early ’80s, a guy in the M.B.A. program who was from Indonesia asked if we’d ever considered using the fax as a way of communicating between faculty and students,” he says. “I didn’t know what a fax machine was. I think about a year later we got our first one at University College. That was a bit of a breakthrough because it enabled people to send us assignments from remote locations.” Another breakthrough came in the mid-’90s, with the growth of the Internet. Gradually, web-based programs were introduced to almost all distance programs.
Three software platforms currently deliver distance courses from SU, each serving different needs of the various degree programs. University College uses two course management systems, TopClass and Blackboard, in which faculty members build web pages for their courses. Stuart Williams, who coordinates technical support at University College, says both systems offer tools for creating, managing, and presenting course materials to students, collaborative tools for communication between students and instructors, testing and grading tools, and an administrative structure for managing students and classes. Both run on virtually any computer using a standard web browser such as Netscape or Internet Explorer. “They are different in appearance and, more fundamentally, how they interact with course developers,” Williams says. “Blackboard is simpler, more intuitive, and less flexible. This makes it good for most instructors who create and upload their own materials. TopClass is more complex, less intuitive, and very flexible in terms of content creation. We use both at UC because each course and environment has its own requirements and each instructor has different needs and his or her own technology comfort level.” The School of Management also uses Blackboard in two of its distance courses.
The School of Information Studies and the School of Education use a third system, called WebCT, which incorporates a sophisticated e-mail program. It features “threaded discussion capability,” which means faculty can keep track of online discussions by subject, student, or date. The feature makes it easier to look up discussions about a particular topic or online seminar, or track a particular online student’s contribution to the discussion. David Pimentel G’00, coordinator for academic services at the School of Information Studies, says faculty members often find high-quality discussions taking place in these threads. “Students aren’t caught off guard by a question,” he says. “They have time to gather their thoughts and words and maybe even refer to that article they’re trying to remember. This way they can put together coherent and cogent responses to their classmates’ comments.” Faculty also find that a reversal of traditional classroom pedagogy adds to the quality of discussions, Pimentel says. “Instead of everyone sitting in a room listening to the ‘sage on the stage,’ students lead the discussion and instructors don’t have to be physically present for students to carry on conversations about important aspects of the course,” he says. “Instructors comment regularly and often refocus the discussion or introduce new topics.” Many of the distance students are information technology professionals who share their knowledge and bring real-world examples to the theories and ideas they tackle in their courses.
Colley says all three software platforms are generally used asynchronously, or on demand. The Maxwell School and the School of Management also deliver distance courses synchronously, usually through videoconferencing. Maxwell’s Global Collaboratory delivers lectures to audiences at the University’s Greenberg House in Washington, D.C., while the School of Management has teamed with a company called Caliber to broadcast its M.B.A. Upgrade program over the Internet to students in corporate facilities or Caliber learning centers (see related story on next page).
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