Far and Away the Best
Dolores Quezada doesn't have time to go to class. Even though she's back at school for pre-law at UT, the "collegiate" experience of lounging around with a bunch of hungover coeds on the West Mall has no appeal anymore. She is 29 years old, and a full-time career at Dell and an eight-year-old daughter at home are pretty much her priorities now. The alternative to traditional campus education fits her modern lifestyle -- Dolores gets to take her classes home. She's enrolled in one night class at UT, but the majority of her class load is at Austin Community College's Open Campus (http://opc.austin.cc.tx.us), a distance learning program that draws over 5,000 students each semester. Classes are offered over the Internet, on cable TV, or in ACC interactive video labs scattered around the Austin region.
The whole idea of this distance learning thing, from way back in the dark ages of 1979, when ACC first created their program, was to get people like Quezada the same access to education available to 18-21-year-olds with plenty of leisure time. She, like most of the other students who answered questions for this article, raves about the program and the freedom it provides. "I have been a single parent for many years ... there is no way I would have been able to complete a bachelor's degree without distance learning," Quezada explains. "I can study after my daughter goes to sleep and on the weekends while she is out playing. These classes allow me to study on my own schedule and not have to be 'in class' at any particular time." She's taken a variety of required courses at the Open Campus that will transfer to UT, including government, biology, and art history. Right now, she's in the middle of an English literature course, and Spanish III, and loving it.
Distance learning, or as those who enjoy higher concept call it -- "distance-free learning" -- seems a natural enterprise for community colleges that are built on the idea of greater access and adult continuing education. It could even be conceived as a sort of education movement -- from the "sage on the stage to guide on the side," as Quezada's Internet-based English instructor Tina Buck tells it. "It's a familiar expression now, but the real way you 'guide' is to facilitate student learning instead of just opening their head and dumping in info," Buck says. "An example would be creating self-directed learning and a virtual community of learners who join in discussion groups online in a chat room atmosphere."
Buck tailored her classes to fit the lifestyle of most of her students, who, according to Open Campus director Ron Brey, are "employed, have one or two dependents, and want more education to move up in their fields or even change fields. If they have to be on-site, they might miss work or family responsibilities and often will spend more time getting here than taking the course."
There are no breaks when a student works at home -- Quezada and her classmates get assignments via e-mail and have to read material, turn in assignments on time, and pass exams just like everyone else. They just don't have to "be" anywhere to do it. The only exception to the distance learning ideal is the first orientation meeting at the beginning of the semester and the final exam -- all students must come to campus and take the exam under personal supervision by the teacher. Everything else is accomplished online and on your own time. If a student has questions, or problems understanding the assignment, the teacher is available by phone or e-mail to talk about it. The tasks may differ from ordinary classes -- an Open Campus student may be asked to surf the Internet for information and report on it, or have to participate on an ACC message board system to discuss the material. Boring lectures are out -- anything the teacher puts together can easily be skimmed when you're at home.
Brey also fine-tuned the current course offerings to serve Central Texas' growing economy -- the campus offers degrees in the health sciences, computer programming and Web development, and business management, among other studies. "The health sciences degrees, in particular," he explains, "provide skilled professionals for the new hospitals, nursing homes, home health care companies, and regional clinics springing up in our region that serve the elderly and the tens of thousands of families moving to Central Texas."
There's another motivation to the distance education movement according to Brey, and that is to keep more of our educated workforce in their hometowns. "We want to meet the market needs so that native Central Texans can stay in their communities to study and work," he says. To that end, ACC set up an interactive video classroom in Fredericksburg, where five to 10 students per semester work toward their LVN nursing degree right in their own community. "Those students," Brey stresses, "would have to drive to Austin or San Antonio, and they would either be exhausted by the experience or the younger people would move away to be closer to class."
ACC and 51 two-year community colleges across the state are participating in a distance learning cooperative called the Virtual College of Texas (http://www.vct.org) that will offer shared courses over the Internet between participating member colleges. Already, the VCT, which started in 1996, has a very full schedule for this fall and spring 2000. Just like ACC, the Virtual College is offering courses in the health sciences, computer programming, business management, plus criminal justice courses for law enforcement careers. Hinterland community college students in Brazosport or Blinn Colleges can now get the more robust course offerings at ACC or Dallas Community College online and on their own time.
ACC has consistently moved toward more technology in education to think and act locally, way ahead of the more venerable University of Texas, which was just putting together its "TeleCampus" at the UT System level last year (http://www.uol.com/telecampus). Two degrees are being offered so far for the coming school year via Internet classes -- an MBA in general management and a Masters of Education (MEd) in educational technology. The idea is similar to VCT: The UT TeleCampus courses involve all eight UT campuses around the state, so that a professor from the Dallas area campus may have students miles away in Austin, El Paso, or Brownsville.
UT TeleCampus communications coordinator Jennifer Rees cautions that distance learning "is not for everyone. ... The key indicators are self-motivation, computer equipment, a supportive family or employer, and clear goals and rewards. People who think it's going to be easy are not going to make it," she stresses. "All the classes are Web-based -- you get your syllabus, your assignments, and order your textbooks online. You may be required to post to class chat boards, or turn in regular e-mails to your professor to stay in touch." Exams, however, must be taken at UT certified test sites, or on the nearest UT campus.
"So far, we have 10,000 registrants to the TeleCampus," beams Rees, "with another five undergraduate and graduate programs coming in the next year, probably nursing and engineering." Rees sees the TeleCampus as a way to fit the new model of university students who are increasingly similar to community college students -- older, employed, and with too many responsibilities to follow the traditional on-campus class schedule.
The TeleCampus curriculum is also designed to be more "real world," she says. For instance, professor Paul Resta at UT Austin is designing MEd online courses that create a virtual school district, complete with records, a student database, and employees; it's called "Mustang ISD." Resta's students take this school district and design ways to integrate technology into the system -- computer systems, teleconferencing, whatever they can dream up to bring the district into the information age quickly and within budget. "The students will then take the virtual world results out to their real world school districts where they will be used," says Rees.
Such practical applications to what can be very theorized traditional learning at the university sets the TeleCampus apart from its land-locked peers in education. In some cases, this new mode of "real skills" training over traditional theory is an unwelcome change among professors. The replacement of the "sage on stage" may be why UT Austin went along with participating in the MEd program but refused to be involved with the MBA Online program with the other seven campuses.
"Some professors -- and I'm not naming names -- ask me if we are trying to keep students out of the classroom," Rees intimates. "They feel threatened by us, but the TeleCampus is not here to replace the on-site university. Absolutely not. In fact, we're trying to keep campuses from becoming obsolete."
Back at ACC, Tina Buck addresses the issue of practical uses for education and evolving teaching methods. She is not only Quezada's English teacher, but she is also an instructional development specialist who trains other teachers how to incorporate tech in their classes. "Heretofore, there was a body of knowledge students were supposed to gain with a four-year degree, but there's too much to know now," she says. "You don't have a finite body of knowledge to impart, so teaching today moves into the concept of a lifelong learning process. Internet students should learn how to direct their own learning out there -- whether it's golf or Chihuahuas -- we need the tools to get that information.
"My rap is -- just like you don't want to stand up in front of a classroom and read from a textbook, you don't want to just put information on the computer screen; you need to make it interesting. Teachers who lecture or have handouts -- all of that is one-dimensional. Online text is not the best for reading, so you need to come up with an iconography. Use colors, graphics, pictures, interactive features, and chunk information visually so you don't have to read 10 pages of text to get them to understand."
Do we have to go the way of Granta or The New Yorker -- trading readability for marketability and efficiency? In a way, Buck is saying we do. At least at ACC, where many of the students are continuing their education as adults with full-time work and kids. Buck is easily consoled on this point, however. "My tradeoff," she explains, "is that I used to assign Henry James stories, and people would take an F rather than read them. I think it's a shame because I'm book-oriented. But we don't wait on the docks for Dickens' next installment anymore either.
"By the way, that's not necessarily a good thing. ... Sometimes I think we have to memorize old books and walk out in the woods -- sort of a [Vonnegut] Fahrenheit 451 thing -- because no one is going to remember these things if we don't. But we have found a way to deal with what students need to know now. They need to know less about more; it's a 24-hour world out there. We are going to keep up."
For more information on ACC's Open Campus call 223-8027 or http://opc.austin.cc.tx.us. For more information on UT's TeleCampus log onto http://www.uol.com/telecampus.