CAUSE/EFFECT

This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 22 Number 3 1999. The copyright is shared by EDUCAUSE and the author. See http://www.educause.edu/copyright for additional copyright information.

Connecting Two Dichotomous Environments through Distance Learning Technologies
by Lynne M. Pachnowski

What happens when a university connects to county high schools through distance learning technologies? For one thing, high-school students benefit from extended course offerings available during their school day; for another, the university gains a kind of �virtual branch campus� and is able to serve students across a wider geographical range. This article relates the challenges faced in such an experience at the University of Akron and suggests elements that must be present for successful university-public school distance learning collaborations.

Since September of 1997 the University of Akron has been involved in a distance learning collaboration with the school districts of a neighboring county. Although the experience has been extremely rewarding for the university, it has also reminded us how diverse our two learning environments are. This article describes how the MedinaLink collaboration came about, examines challenges that emerged in a number of areas, and offers suggestions to ensure successful programs for others embarking on similar projects.

A Little History

In the fall of 1996 the school administrators of Medina County, Ohio, approached the University of Akron regarding a proposal to link the university with the schools of the adjacent county. Medina County, located approximately 40 miles south of Cleveland, is one of the fastest growing counties in Ohio and does not have a university or extension campus within its borders. Instead of spending the money to build a �brick and mortar� campus, the school administrators proposed using distance learning technology to link the county�s schools with the university.

The state legislature provided funding for an initial two-classroom connection between the university and one high school and has since provided funding to link the remaining schools in the county. The classrooms are connected by high-bandwidth fiber, but have the capability of interacting with outside sources at lower, videoconferencing speeds. Each classroom contains state-of-the-art instructional equipment including an instructor-tracking camera, two student cameras, VCR and laser disk players, and a document camera and CPU connected to a Smart technology (touch-sensitive) monitor.

In April of 1997 the first two classrooms, one located in the university library and one located at the pilot high school, went online. By the fall of 1998 three additional Medina County high schools were added to the network, and as of the fall of 1999, connections to all seven county high schools and the Career Center will be operational.

The county identified the initial plans for the use of the classrooms. They included post-secondary education to eligible high-school students, graduate education courses for county teachers, undergraduate teacher education uses, and collaborative projects between county schools. The delivery of post-secondary coursework became one of the first uses of the technology.

In Ohio, high-school students who are academically qualified can enroll in college courses through Ohio Senate Bill 140, which entitles juniors and seniors with a 3.5 grade point average or better to begin their college coursework while in high school. More recently, freshmen and sophomores who meet higher qualifications are eligible for post-secondary coursework as well. This program gives high-school students the opportunity to take college courses that may apply toward both their high-school program and a college transcript or that may be taken for college credit only. Until this project, Ohio students who participated in the post-secondary program left their high-school campus during the school day to attend college courses on a nearby college campus or attended college full-time. Through distance learning technology, high-school students can now take college courses within their own school building by �dropping in� to the distance learning classroom linked to the university. From the point of view of an instructor at the university, his or her class would consist of students at the university site as well as a few students at the distant high-school site(s) who are projected on a 100" rear screen.

At the start of the project, the university offered two post-secondary courses to high-school students at the pilot high school as well as to university undergraduates. Although the program experienced some problems with low enrollment initially, the following school year approximately 50 students from four high schools enrolled in eight different courses.

Challenges of Connecting Dichotomous Environments

Although this joint venture between the university and the public schools has had its rewards for both parties, it also has had and continues to have its challenges. At the heart of the problems is the attempt to link two environments that are dichotomous in structure and style.

Enrollment, selecting courses, and semester scheduling

One of the first difficulties we encountered was the selection of post-secondary courses and the scheduling of students for these courses. For example, at the university, a course that is intended to be offered during the spring semester must be given to the scheduling office by the previous August in order for it to be published in the distributed schedule of classes. However, high schools begin scheduling in February for the entire following academic year, and Ohio state law requires that a list of post-secondary courses be distributed to potential students and their parents by March 31. Therefore, in order to obtain a substantial high-school enrollment for any or all post-secondary classes, the university had to plan for the entire academic year by the previous February. During our initial year, this was difficult to do since the rooms would not be online until April, making it necessary to approach liberal arts department heads in February to convince them to offer courses when the technology existed only in theory and many of the courses were so far in the future.

Selection of the first courses and instructors needed to be strategic. Through conversation with the post-secondary student university counselor, we obtained a list of four courses in which post-secondary students had been successful. Administrators from the pilot high school selected two of the four. The university�s director of curriculum approached the instructors of these courses seeking their participation. Both of these individuals are considered superior university instructors, a factor we believe was key to the success of the project. Successfully recruiting these instructors not only added legitimacy to the program in the eyes of the university community, but it also guaranteed positive course reviews from the high-school students, which in turn contributed to word-of-mouth promotion. With distance learning programs, the only perception of the university a student develops is through the instructors and the curriculum.

During the first semester of the project, we were able to offer Introduction to Sociology and Introduction to Effective Speaking. The spring semester was slightly less successful since one of the two offerings, Basic Statistics, was canceled due to low enrollment at both sites and the unwillingness of the department administrators to wait for the effects of last-minute recruitment. During the summer of 1997 the university averted on-campus fall enrollment problems by hosting the freshmen orientation counselors in the distance learning classroom to eliminate any misconceptions about the quality of the technology and the delivery of the instruction. However, we erred in assuming that a similar type of intervention was not necessary for the spring semester.

Having the time to plan effectively and being able to demonstrate the use of the classrooms, the director of curriculum was able to create a full academic year schedule for the second year of the project consisting of five courses distributed throughout the school day. Only one after-school science lab course was canceled, and lab courses were eliminated from the realm of possible courses. For the third year of the project, university representatives met last May with the high-school guidance counselors to obtain their suggestions for the course offerings for next year and with department heads to get their agreement on the offerings. The representatives will meet with the counselors again in November to determine which courses are offered to which school.

Although the post-secondary courses still experience some problems with low enrollment, the administrators of the MedinaLink project have committed the university, through the provost�s agreement, to proceeding with low enrollment courses for at least the first three years. Both the university and county administrators believe that this commitment is necessary to foster the high-school students� knowledge and trust in the program.

Daily scheduling

The daily scheduling issue can be one of the biggest challenges of real-time distance learning programs. When linking a university environment with a high-school environment, these challenges become more pronounced. University courses are typically offered two or three times a week; high schools offer courses daily. A high-school class may begin at 9:43 a.m. and end at 10:28 a.m.--a schedule considered bizarre in university terms. University courses run for 10 to 15 weeks; a high-school semester runs for 18 weeks.

For the first semester of our collaboration, these dilemmas were alleviated by scheduling the two post-secondary courses at the beginning and end of the high-school day with starting and ending times in multiples of five for 50-minute class sessions (that is, 8:00-8:50) on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On days when the classes did not meet, the high-school students had either late arrival or early dismissal. Since one of the instructors required his students to take computer-based exams on the students� own time, the high-school students were able to complete this assignment during alternate class times.

The next school year was slightly more complicated with five courses being offered each semester and up to four high schools participating in each class. We decided to schedule two classes in the morning, one during the longer lunch period, and two at the end of the day. There were several reasons for doing this. First, there would be only a five-minute change time between the morning and afternoon classes. High schools are accustomed to this, but colleges are not. We wanted to minimize the inevitable clamor that would take place at the university site when one class must begin only five minutes after the end of another. Second, the technology personnel preferred to have ample time between classes so that they would have time to fix any difficulties and minimize interference with the classes. While university personnel, especially instructors, need to be flexible in regard to scheduling and change times, the high schools must be flexible in allowing students who take these classes to leave a class two or three minutes early or to arrive at a class two or three minutes late.

Since the university would be delivering courses from two different classroom sites (each to four high schools), we were able to stagger the class schedules so that each school had a course schedule that matched as closely as possible to the school�s bell schedule. One last important lesson the university has learned is that on-campus students are more likely to register for morning courses that do not meet at a time that matches the universitys printed schedule than they are to register for off-scheduled classes in the afternoon. Therefore, morning post-secondary courses are scheduled based on the high-schools class start times, but afternoon classes are scheduled based on the universitys printed schedule.

We have left special considerations like snow days or conflicting vacations breaks to the discretion of the instructor and will continue to do so. Often, the instructors will continue to instruct based on the university schedule and leave attendance optional for the high-school students on conflicting days. When the class is well received by the high-school students, we have found that the students are likely to come to school on a day off to attend the college course.

The director of curriculum has created an electronic mail list to help administer the use of the classrooms. About two administrators and/or facilitators from each school are members of the list. The university staff use the list to inform school personnel of special virtual field trip events, scheduling changes, testing of equipment, and technical difficulties.

Distribution of resources

As with all distance learning programs, instructors and administrators need to determine how instructional resources will be distributed. In our program, we have the advantage of having a captive secondary audience, school personnel who are always available during the school day, and up-to-date technology in the high schools. Before the distance learning classrooms were built, the university technology personnel provided the necessary software to all the county high schools to enable the high-school students to search and obtain university library resources. The university and the county schools established a courier van to deliver non-cyber documents. This courier has also become the vehicle for the transfer of classroom resources such as syllabi and reading materials. For smaller documents, the classrooms are equipped with fax machines programmed to speed-dial the remote site.

In the post-secondary program, textbooks are paid for by state funds, so the texts merely need to be transferred to the site. Graduate students may order and/or purchase textbooks via a university bookstore Web site.

Instructor training

Those involved in the MedinaLink project pride themselves on the fact that the classrooms were designed by a team of technology personnel and educators to be director-free and to facilitate a number of styles of instruction. Therefore, training for teaching in our classrooms consists of teaching the instructor how to operate the microphones and the instructional equipment. After that, the instructors are on their own with the exception of a needs-only technology assistant known as a tech angel--an employee of the media department. The tech angel is present for the training sessions and available to assist the instructor in creating and/or facilitating instructional resources. The tech angel is also present at the first few class sessions until the instructor is comfortable enough to be on his or her own.

During the first training session, the instructor is acclimated to what would probably be new equipment, such as the document camera and the touch-screen control panel. This session is conducted one-on-one to optimize the amount of time the instructor can practice with the equipment and to tailor each session to the instructors teaching style. During this session, trainers communicate to the instructor that one challenge will be maintaining the students attention at the far site and requiring participation; it appears that some post-secondary students find the instructors lecture an excellent time to complete homework for other classes--not unlike some college students!

The second session is held with instructors at two sites to convey to the instructor the requirements involved in communicating with a remote site. Besides teaching the instructors about the adaptations one makes when teaching students at a remote site, the training coordinator has also used this session as an opportunity for new instructors to ask advice from veteran instructors. The director of curriculum and the training coordinator can continue to communicate with faculty through an electronic mail list.

Representatives from each of the high schools have also been trained by university personnel in the use of the classrooms. Eventually, the university hopes simply to act as a facilitator in helping to connect these teachers and classrooms through newsletters and electronic mail lists and to suggest and help implement innovative uses of the classroom technology. One school district has committed to providing virtual field trips for every student in the district, and another has considered offering its own unique courses to other students in the county using the distance learning classrooms in their buildings.

Special speakers

One of the most exciting uses of this link between the university and the high schools has been the ability to bring special speakers to the high-school students. On occasion, the university attempts to connect a guest speaker with a high-school group of similar interests. For example, a distinguished alumna who is currently working for NASA was able to entertain questions from the physics class at the pilot high school. A poet who had just had a book published by the university press gave a lecture and entertained questions from not only members of the university community, but also from the poetry club at the pilot high school. Using outside network connections, the university connected a Medina County elementary class to a class in American Samoa for a musical exchange. These sessions are incredibly rewarding for the students who would not typically have the opportunity to engage in discourse with these guests and who often put the campus attendees to shame with their preparation and insightful questions. Eventually, one of the communities of Medina County who operates its own cable television system anticipates that it will be able to televise some of the universitys courses or guest speakers to all the residents of their city. The university looks forward to the service it can provide and the university presence it can garner in the county through these services.

Legal releases

As the project receives more attention, the number of requests that the university receives from vendors and other institutions to view the rooms increases. When these visitors enter the university classroom during a post-secondary class, they are able to see the high-school students on the monitor. The Buckley Amendment suggests that the parents of these students should sign releases permitting their childs image to be viewed at the university. The university and county administrators and attorneys are currently developing the releases. They include an Internet use release since each high-school classroom is identical to the universitys and, therefore, contains an Internet-accessible computer.

Suggestions for Successful Programs

There are some elements of the MedinaLink project which have been critical to its success and could easily be replicated at other universities.

Collaborative technology and instructor planning

From the very beginning of this project, the technology personnel and the educational personnel worked closely together in designing the classrooms. The educators eliminated the large, long instructor barrier so that the instructor could walk freely about the classroom. The technology personnel provided wireless, camera-tracking instructor microphones in the plan. The educators insisted upon student tables that an instructor could walk around and at which students could work collaboratively. The technology personnel proposed using powerfloor in order to run the microphone wiring under the free-floating tables. The educators continue to make suggestions during and at the end of each semester to the technology personnel. Open communication between these two groups has enabled the capabilities of the room to grow and yet remain instructor friendly. Furthermore, it has been a benefit that the university has, to this point, been willing to allocate whatever resource is necessary to maintain the quality of the technology and the instruction in these classrooms. This last item is also critical in recruiting and keeping good instructors.

Allowing and encouraging student participation

The classrooms were designed so that the instructor can view all (or most) of the students at each remote site. There is one push-to-talk microphone for every three students at each site. The classrooms were also designed to easily facilitate cooperative learning arrangements, instructor movement, student presentations from any site, and many other creative instructional methods. With a little effort from the instructor (no more effort than in a traditional classroom), each student can feel that she or he can contribute to the class experience.

Recruiting exemplary instructors

We were very lucky at our university to obtain two wonderful instructors to participate in the inaugural semester of the post-secondary program. Having these instructors has since created an expectation that only the finest instructors teach in our high-tech classroom and that it is an honor to be invited to teach there. As mentioned previously, it is also critical from the high schools point of view that the instruction is of high quality since the instruction is the only view of the university the post-secondary students experience. Unlike their counterparts who commute to campus, they do not experience university parking, classroom buildings, quads, and other facets that paint an entire picture of the quality of the university.

One-on-one training and technology assistance

It was the technology personnel who developed the idea of assigning a technologist to assist each new instructor. It was the educators who nicknamed these people tech angels. In any case, these assistants have been one of the best attractions of teaching in this program. Our technology angels meet their instructors at the instructors first training session, communicate with the instructor regularly prior to the first class, and attend at least the first two weeks of the class. Even though the technology aid no longer attends the class once the instructor feels more confident, the instructor is never without constant technology assistance. Each classroom is equipped with a telephone on which a number is posted which, when called, rings directly to the support desk.

Open communication of the needs of the school districts

One of the responsibilities of the director of curriculum of the MedinaLink project has been to communicate with the personnel of the schools and districts that have distance learning rooms or are having one built. The university and county administrators meet on a monthly basis to be certain issues are addressed.

The director of curriculum, who is also an associate professor of education, continuously links content providers with county teachers or teacher educators with teachers in the field. To help facilitate some of these K-12 collaborations and to continue to communicate with the schools, the director of curriculum created a newsletter and resource list to report on the many events of the MedinaLink project that serve the K-12 community. Electronic mail lists with members from each school also help maintain communication.

Although there are obvious challenges to implementing a university-high school distance learning link, there has always seemed to be a solution to each new challenge as long as those involved remained committed to the project, flexible in their expectations, and steadfast in their belief in the value of the program. With regard to the latter, the cost-benefit analysis of such a program is a discussion that comes up often at the university, but such an evaluation is very difficult because of so many variables. Whether the post-secondary students choose to attend our institution after graduation or influence a classmate in his or her college decision is one measure of success but not the only one. Naturally, one benefit that does not calculate into the formula is the sense of personal accomplishment felt by the high-school student who is able to enjoy and be successful in a college-level course and the satisfaction the instructor feels for having inspired young adults.

Postscript

Pictures of the MedinaLink classrooms can be found at http://www.uakron.edu/avs/medina_link.html.

For Further Reading:

Hammond, R. J. Fine tuning interactive delivery for high school students in a rapidly growing college and distance learning system: A student readiness approach. In Proceedings of the Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1999. 217-221.

Holt, S. Video delivered K-12 distance learning: A practitioners view. Technological Horizons. 1991. 19(5), 59-63.

McHenry, L., and M. Bozik. From a distance: Student voices from the interactive video classroom. TechTrends. 1997. 42(6), 20-24.

Roblyer, M. D. Why do students choose distance learning? A study of participation in virtual courses at high school and community college levels. Paper presented at the 1999 American Educational Research Association annual meeting, Montreal, Canada.

Wolcott, L. Distant, but not distanced. A learner-centered approach to distance education. TechTrends. 1996. 41(4), 23-27.

Lynne M. Pachnowski ([email protected]), an associate professor of education in the College of Education at the University of Akron, serves under the Office of Information Services as coordinator of distance learning, overseeing all distance learning activities at the university.

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