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May 15, 1997

Interest in distant education options at Pitt is increasing

When a Pitt political science professor recently needed an expert on Nicaragua to speak to his class, he turned for help to a colleague from Texas. The colleague lectured and fielded questions from the Pitt students — without leaving Texas, thanks to the increasingly popular technology of two-way interactive television (ITV).

A growing number of Pitt schools are offering distance education degree programs, courses and one-shot classroom presentations, many of them involving ITV, the director of Pitt's Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) told Faculty Assembly May 6.

Diane Davis gave a mostly upbeat update, abeit with a few reservations. She noted the following developments, among others:

* The Provost's office is encouraging distance education by providing equipment, support services and other resources. In most cases, the Provost's office is waiving ITV fees, which amount to $150 per hour for a broadcast linking two Pitt campuses. CIDDE's advisory committee screens waiver applications. "We will have to limit the amount of waivers we approve, but at this point the technology is still new and we haven't been overwhelmed [with applications] yet," Davis said.

* The University and the Pennsylvania Cable Network are exploring opportunities for PCN to broadcast Pitt continuing education courses. Davis credited PCN executive Yolanda Barco, a Pitt trustee, with proposing the idea.

* Pennsylvania lawmakers, on the other hand, have not yet released Pitt's estimated $1.5 million share of state distance education funds for the fiscal year that ends June 30. "We have not seen one cent of that money yet. I keep hearing that it will come. I just hope our satellite dish [atop Forbes Quadrangle] doesn't fall down before then," Davis said.

Ann Dykstra, Pitt Commonwealth Relations director, said this week that the state hasn't told University administrators when it will release the $1.5 million.

In addition to replacement of Pitt's satellite dish, high priority distance education needs here include expanding and upgrading ITV facilities at most Pitt campuses and acquiring software that would enable instructors and students to conduct ongoing conferences through their computers (as opposed to exchanging individual e-mail messages), Davis said.

Currently, Pittsburgh campus ITV facilities include classrooms in Benedum, David Lawrence and Victoria halls. Benedum also maintains an ITV conference center. Additional ITV facilities are planned for Mervis Hall and the Information Sciences Building, Davis said.

Each of the four regional campuses has an ITV classroom and/or conference center, although the Bradford and Greensburg facilities need to be upgraded and the Johnstown campus is so active in distance education that it probably needs a second classroom, according to Davis.

Competition is a driving force in the spread of distance education, she pointed out. For example, Duke University recently began offering a distance-ed MBA program, available around the country. "I mean, that hurts our business school here when a school like Duke has a distance education MBA program," Davis said.

She noted that "distance education" refers to any instruction in which teachers and students do not meet at the same time and/or place. Formats range from low-tech printed materials to World Wide Web-based instruction to ITV. "I think there's been an over-reliance on ITV" at Pitt and elsewhere, Davis said. "I do not personally believe that interactive television is the wave of the future in distance education. I think it's one technology, it's useful, and I've seen its utility in cases where it's just been absolutely wonderful.

"But if we're going to do distance education by taking 45 [credit] hours and just moving them into one classroom and hooking up with a room someplace distant, I don't think that's improving instruction and I don't think it's using technology to the best advantage." Academic (and, to a lesser extent, financial) needs should drive Pitt distance education activities rather than the technology itself, Davis said. "Where the best distance education efforts are happening is where they're being developed at the school level…The schools know their own students and courses and best potential audiences. We [CIDDE] are eager to work with the faculty to determine which technologies are appropriate for what they're trying to accomplish." Faculty members who want to learn more about Pitt distance education options, including how to apply for waivers of ITV fees, should call CIDDE at 624-3335.

— Bruce Steele

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