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February 29, 1996

Katz professor testing the waters of electronic course instruction

John E. Prescott of the Katz Graduate School of Business doesn't plan to meet with the students taking his "Competitive Intelligence" course this term.

And he doesn't want them calling him on the telephone.

He has even asked that they avoid talking about the course among themselves.

And that's exactly how the University administration wants Prescott to teach this particular course — the first ever at Pitt in which students and their instructor will not meet face-to-face, according to the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE).

Students have been taking study-at-home courses through Pitt's External Studies program since 1972. But while those classes allow students to study independently and take exams off-campus, they require teachers and students to meet together for nine hours during the term.

Even the mathematics and statistics department's two Internet Calculus courses, launched last fall, call for on-campus orientation sessions and workshops, and students may talk with instructors in person or by phone.

In contrast, the "Competitive Intelligence" course was designed for zero in-person contact between Prescott and his students, who include 10 Pittsburgh campus MBA students and eight business executives around the country. They communicate with one another through the Internet, e-mail and an old-fashioned "hard copy" syllabus and reading materials.

Each Monday, a different student kicks off an electronic class discussion on an assigned topic. Other students and Prescott add their own comments. These exchanges continue through Thursday evening. Then the discussion leader summarizes the week's major points.

The course began Feb. 26.

"We're using a computer 'groupware' that allows a defined set of people, 19 of us in this case, to exchange messages with each other over the Internet," Prescott said. When Prescott needs to communicate privately with a student, he and the student exchange e-mail.

"In the future, I may not be so strict about avoiding the telephone and asking students not to talk and meet with each other about the course, but this semester is a test case," Prescott said.

University administrators want to see whether it is possible — or advisable — for Pitt to join the small but growing number of institutions offering "pure" distance learning courses, said Diane Davis, interim director of CIDDE.

Thanks to the World Wide Web, courses like Prescott's can be marketed to any academically qualified, paying student with access to the Internet. The student could live in Blawnox or Beijing.

Current technology can't overcome language differences, but time zones aren't much of a problem if the course is designed properly. For example, the California and Texas business execs taking Prescott's class can join in the weekly electronic class discussions at their convenience. As long as they don't push the Thursday night deadline too far, it doesn't matter when they add their comments and read what fellow students have written, Prescott said.

Distance learning advocates at Pitt say that new technologies such as the Internet and two-way interactive video will transform higher education, both in terms of pedagogy and marketing.

"Contact hours — the amount of time that instructors and students spend together in the classroom — has always been a sacred standard," Davis noted. "The Middle States people, among other accrediting organizations, base their evaluations largely on contact hours. But when you're teaching a course over the Internet, how do you measure the time an instructor spends with his students during a given week? How do you define whether something is a three-credit class? Do you charge the same tuition for an Internet course that you charge for a traditional course?"

Because of such uncertainties, the eight business executives taking Prescott's course this term are not being charged tuition. "We see them as helping us work out the bugs of this technology," Prescott said. The 10 Pitt students are being billed for three credit hours for the course, which they are taking as an elective within the MBA curriculum.

Issues such as tuition rates and contact hours are being discussed by faculty and staff serving on a Distance Education Task Force, appointed by Provost James Maher last fall. By May, the 32-member group plans to make recommendations concerning Pitt distance learning needs and priorities, funding and personnel issues, and possible partnerships with business, industry and government.

While Pitt can't afford to become roadkill on the information superhighway, the University also shouldn't jump into the cyber-classroom rashly, Davis pointed out. "It's very important to make sure the course material lends itself toward a distance education approach," she said. "For example, transmitting long written texts over the Web is not a good use of the technology. Students can get access to the same material through a book. It's cheaper, and they can carry a book with them on the bus."

Prescott's competitive intelligence course was chosen as a pilot project for two main reasons, he and Davis said:

* In marketing terms, it's potentially attractive to business executives worldwide because the Katz school is one of only a handful of business schools offering courses on competitive intelligence, which Prescott defines as "using sophisticated, legal techniques to gain in-depth knowledge about a business competitor's products and marketing strategies." Competitive intelligence is not the same thing as industrial espionage, which involves stealing and buying company secrets, Prescott said.

* The course material lent itself to a distance learning approach, with heavy use of hard-copy reading materials and discussions that could be simulated through Internet exchanges.

In working with Pitt faculty to create future Internet courses, CIDDE will give priority to projects that have been endorsed by the Institutional Technology Working Group, a sub-group of the University's Executive Committee on Academic Computing. "The working group is made up of faculty who will do peer reviews of new distance education courses, to make sure they're truly innovative and academically sound," Davis said.

— Bruce Steele

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