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Tools make adapting classes for distance learning easier

Cyberspace, electronic communication, Blackboard, Angel, hybrid, EngiNet — all aspects of distance education, or distributed education, which encompass the use of tech-nology to provide instruction for both close-by and distant enrollees and for enrollees distributed in time as well as in space.

At Binghamton, almost half of its Winter Session pilot courses were provided via distance education, about 25-30 faculty “hybridize” their courses by reducing the amount of information disseminated in face-to-face settings so they can use different pedagogies in class meetings, and software such as Blackboard and Angel are used to facilitate electronic communications for many individual courses and for EngiNet, the Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science graduate distance learning project.

Distance education offers a variety of tools to faculty, who can determine their individual comfort level and how extensively they want to utilize them. “It also provides the University with the opportunity to reach new students and the ability to blend new technologies in conjunction with regular courses,” said Tom Kowalik, director of Continuing Education and Outreach.

Unlike Internet banking or conducting other business in cyberspace where there is no contact with another human being, distance education requires as much, if not more, of a connection to other people than traditional instruction. “It used to be said, and I think it’s still true, that it takes about 50 hours of time to develop one hour of deliverable online material,” said James Wolf, director of academic computing. “That’s why a lot of what you tend to see in distance education tends to be the introductory classes that you teach every year.”

In addition, teaching through distance edu-cation requires rethinking teaching methods, he said. “It’s a different kind of pedagogy that takes a major commitment. For instance, there might be a lot of activity in a Web chat between students and the instructor the night before a test,” he said. Blackboard is one such new technology that allows faculty to “get their feet wet” in the world of distance education, according to Wolf. “Things like Blackboard and the Web lower some of the barriers the faculty have toward doing distance education because they’re really doing a lot of the same things they would be doing if they were trying to deliver that same content at a distance,” he said. “Some successes have occurred with faculty who started with Blackboard and now have their materials together and can take it to the next step of distance learning.”

Wolf believes that rethinking pedagogy is just part of the picture when talking distance education at Binghamton. “The things that impede distance learning on this campus are not as much technological as they are cultural and pedagogical,” he said. “One of the things that actually impedes distance learning here is fear of the tyranny of e-mail and dealing with spam.” There are other obstacles to operating a successful distance education program, said Wolf. “To do distance education right, you have to have full programs, not just individual courses,” he said. “There is only one program, I think, that people planned to be a full program, and that’s Materials Science between engineering, physics and chemistry.” “And, it’s not always easy to communicate materials electronically,” he added. “But these are not correspondence courses. We now have tools we didn’t have before and with a video cam on your computer, you can easily have face-to-face meetings with students.”

Kowalik said Binghamton students are hungry for faculty to make the distance edu-cation leap. “When we market on the Web for Summer and Winter Sessions, the distance education information button is hammered,” he said. “Our students are ready for it and it helps us seek new audiences for the Binghamton learning experience.”

“In fact, during registration for Winter Session, one distance education course filled in the first 40 minutes, so we opened up another section,” he said.

“That filled quickly and we ultimately had to turn some students away.” Kowalik also believes that distance education is one means of propelling the University into the future. “Looking at the hunger our students have for distance education options,” he said, “shows me that distance education is one solution to the many challenges the University faces today and into tomorrow and can play a key role in helping us achieve the strategic themes identified in the University’s strategic plan.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08