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November 9, 1995

DISTANCE education

Are there any questions before we get started?" engineering professor Roy Marangoni asked his "Manufacturing Quality Assessment" class.

None of the 20 graduate students in 211 David Lawrence Hall had any questions.

"Does everyone have copies of the two handouts?" Marangoni asked.

Judging from the assenting nods and murmurs of the students, everyone did. So Marangoni proceeded to describe a problem detailed in one of the handouts. It had to do with determining a cylinder's volume based on measurements of diameter and length.

With a pen, Marangoni highlighted certain equations in a page-full of calculations. He showed the students a micrometer, used for measuring the diameters and lengths. Occasionally, a student in 211 Lawrence would ask a question and Marangoni would answer, or vice versa.

It was a routine session — except that Marangoni and several members of the class were speaking from Pitt's Johnstown campus.

Linking the Johnstown classroom to Oakland's Lawrence Hall was a technology called interactive television. ITV allows for two-way video and audio communication; an instructor and his or her students in one classroom can see and talk with students taking the same class at another site.

ITV represents the cutting edge in the rapidly growing field of distance education. While many people in higher education consider ITV and distance education to be synonymous, the latter term actually refers to various high-tech as well as traditional forms of teaching, said Diane Davis, interim director of Pitt's Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE).

"Basically, distance education takes place when the instructor and the students he or she is teaching are separated by location and/or in time," she said.

Among the common forms of distance education are:

* Self-instructional print materials. Since 1972, undergraduates have been earning Pitt credits through the University External Studies Program without having to visit campus for more than nine hours per term, per course. Using take-home printed materials, students study at their convenience and can take exams at off-campus sites such as public libraries.

* Audio and video tapes. For decades, foreign language and music departments have used audio recordings. Handicapped students have long relied on taped lectures. But the advent of affordable VCRs, car cassette players and the Walkman has made these technologies routine features of a college education.

* Computer-based education. This fall, Pitt became one of four universities offering Internet Calculus courses. All first-semester calculus students here take the course, doing their classwork and turning in homework via computer. The University also offers the course to high school honors students. It's an example of the way Pitt and other institutions are tapping into the information superhighway to market and deliver their services.

* Interactive Television. ITV has come a long way in the last decade. "The first ITV we had here at Pitt eight years ago was very crude," recalled Jeffrey Cepull, interim associate director of CIDDE. "The motion delays were almost unbearable and the audio was a real compromise." Figures on early ITV screens moved at the equivalent of eight frames a second (compared with 30 frames per second for the average TV show) and sound was muddy.

The latest ITV microphones are sensitive enough to pick up murmured student responses and shuffling papers, and to differentiate between the two. Video transmission today ranges between 8 and 30 frames per second. But because the cost of ITV increases along with picture quality, Pitt and most other universities settle for 15 frames per second for most courses. At that speed, teachers are still advised to avoid sudden movements, but the nickelodeon jerkiness of early ITV is gone.

The improved picture quality came with the development of "compressed" ITV, in which a high bandwidth signal (the higher the bandwidth, the better the picture quality) is temporarily compressed to fit within the transmission limits of a telephone line.

Through AT&T's global telephone network, Pitt's five campuses can share ITV transmissions with one another and with sites worldwide. For example, students at the Katz Graduate School of Business have consulted via ITV with corporate executives in Hong Kong and Singapore. The Katz school hopes to begin offering courses through ITV to students in Hong Kong as early as spring 1996.

Pitt's nursing, social work, and library and information science schools, among others, also plan to begin using ITV or expand their use of it, mainly to extend their offerings to the regional campuses. But the University's biggest ITV-user currently is the engineering school, which is the only Pitt unit offering an entire academic degree through ITV — a master's of manufacturing systems engineering program linking the Pittsburgh and Johnstown campuses.

Engineering professor John Manley coordinates the program, now in its second year. It is funded by a four-year, $3.54 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. "Essentially, the Navy wants to see whether a manufacturing engineering program can be successfully taught at a distance," Manley said. "The first step is to offer the program between Pittsburgh and Johnstown." The next step, which could come as early as spring 1996, will be to extend the program to employees at General Motors Corp. sites in Warren, Ohio, and El Paso, Tex. Then, if Navy administrators are satisfied with the results, Pitt would begin offering the program at naval bases across the United States.

Naval personnel who are unable to commute to college campuses already can take certain master's level courses through audio and video taped lectures, written materials and one-way satellite transmissions (in addition to courses taught by instructors at naval bases), Manley noted. But until now, manufacturing systems engineering — and other disciplines that require hands-on lab work and demonstrations, and two-way communication between students and instructors — were deemed inappropriate for distance education. "ITV has changed all that," Manley said.

Like other proponents of ITV, Manley predicts that geography soon will be a minor consideration for students deciding where to attend college. "Over the next five years, I think that long-distance commuting by students will gradually disappear," he said. "I think that all major universities are going to have to get into distance education, not necessarily to survive but to be competitive in the education marketplace. The competition has already started, and it's going to grow." A decade from now, Manley said, a local high school valedictorian who doesn't want to leave Pittsburgh may be able to choose between attending Pitt, Carnegie Mellon — or any number of elite universities offering degree programs nationwide via computer or through local distance education sites. "It's possible that someday a student will be able to earn a degree from someplace like Stanford without ever having to leave western Pennsylvania," said Manley.

ITV does have its drawbacks, including:

* Occasional technical failures.

* Physical absence of the instructor at the receiving site. This means, among other things, that students at distant sites must behave in ways that would be considered rude in a traditional classroom — interrupting the instructor when they have questions or can't see a graphic on the screen. Silently raising a hand is unlikely to get the instructor's attention.

* Additional advance preparation time for the instructor. Even an old hand at ITV must make sure that hand-out materials reach students earlier than would be necessary in a traditional class.

* Expense. An hour-long ITV transmission linking two Pitt campuses costs an average of $105 ($40 in AT&T network charges plus $65 for University staff and services). Charges for international transmissions vary greatly but can be surprisingly small; the Katz school was charged just $24 for one of its ITV hookups with Singapore, said CIDDE's Cepull. The variations result from the fact that Pitt must go through the AT&T global network to make an ITV connection, whether the connection is between Oakland and Greensburg — or Oakland and China, Cepull noted. Depending on the picture and sound quality desired, and the technological sophistication of the foreign site, Pitt can end up paying more for an ITV link between two of its campuses than it pays for an international ITV connection.

* Time differences. No problem among Pitt campuses, but what about classroom sessions taking place simultaneously here and on the West Coast? Or internationally? Asian time differences are especially problematic: When it's 3 p.m. in Pittsburgh, it's 1 a.m. the following day in India and 5 a.m. in Japan.

Provost James Maher has appointed a Distance Education Task Force to study those issues and others. (See story on page 5.) It's the first time Pitt has tried to coordinate and set priorities for its distance education efforts.

"All of these initiatives in distance education that you see happening now at Pitt developed almost spontaneously, on their own," said CIDDE Interim Director Davis. "The time was right, certain technologies became available, a few faculty members like John Manley became interested in the potential of ITV. But until now there was never a coordinated effort by the University to determine, what shall we do in distance education? It's an important question."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 28 Issue 6

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