Can Distance Learning Really Go the Distance?

As the world rushes to put computers on the Internet, the clear utility of the World Wide Web as a presentation medium, the development of on-line services and the proliferation of local Internet access providers have combined to give many the impression that a new age is dawning. In this new age people will have access to nearly unlimited information in their homes. Does this mean people will no longer need to come to a special place to learn? If all the information is accessible from home, why leave?

One reason is to interact with faculty and other students. If people could buy college texts, read them and master college material on their own without interaction, they could skip college as we know it. Very few people can learn this way, however. Most need interaction.

Most need something else: they need the concentrated effort that shapes one's mind. I call this immersion. Immersion is being unable to escape from the material. The material becomes part of you by its ever-presence. Can remote technologies, especially the Internet, achieve the immersion that is an essential part of the university experience?

Maybe. Although static Web pages can provide neither immersion nor interaction, the emerging Internet technologies may be capable of delivering materials that can engage remote learners and provide opportunities for contact with instructors and classmates. Certainly e-mail provides a low level of interaction and can be enhanced with graphical and speech inserts so that voice clips and pictures can be mailed.

Real-time interaction can be done using a MOO- a text-based, virtual reality environment in which students "speak" by typing, but can also move through "rooms" and create and manipulate objects. Educational MOOs is a hot topic in distance learning. CLAS has a large educational MOO at the Writing Project. You can try it as a "guest" character using telnet. Simply connect with the command: (telnet moo.ucet.ufl.edu 7777 -7777 is the telnet port number). Once connected, on-screen directions will help you log on and navigate the MOO.

With interactive Web pages students manipulate material directly over the Internet. Common Gateway Interface (CGI) programming is one way to develop potentially multimedia, interactive material. Selman Hershfield, assistant professor of physics, has developed interactive, on-line physics lessons. Take a look at: http://www.phys.ufl.edu/~phy3054. These materials are being used to supplement a traditional on-campus course, but they could be used in remote courses for high school teachers or for non-traditional and place-bound students.

In regards to issues of electronic pedagogy and approaches to teaching and learning on-line, it's important to mention the Electronic Learning Forum: (http://www.elf.ufl.edu) which is dedicated to exploring questions of distance learning via networked technologies. An inventive process is required to ensure that the on-line experience is as rich and rewarding as the on-campus experience. We at CLAS are striving for quality education regardless of the location of the students and the instructor as we develop on-line material in a variety of disciplines. Geology, religion, physics, chemistry and English each have large amounts of material on-line as supplements to existing on-campus courses. We are developing an on-line bachelor's degree in English. Please visit the CLAS home page: (http://www.clas.ufl.edu) and follow the links to our departments to see material they have on-line.

Our current plan is to begin offering on-line courses for credit in Fall 1997. This will require solving some minor administrative problems and some not-so-minor technical training and pedagogical problems. It is a very exciting time for the College. We have an opportunity to help create opportunities for university education.

- Mike Conlon is the CLAS Director for Information Resources

(For additional articles on technology and CLAS, see Mike's column "Conlon on Computing," which appears in the monthly college newsletter, CLAS notes, on-line at http://www.clas.ufl.edu/clasnotes.)