When the world wide web made its entrance into global consciousness, there were great hopes that it would be used as a tool for educational content and distribution. With the increasing availability of broadband access and the integration of technologies from telecommunications and broadcasting, the web's ability to bring audio, video, and content to students far from the classroom is finally being realized.
"We've always taught our grad program long distance," explains Rose Ann DiMaria, Ph.D., R.N., and assistant professor at the West Virginia University School of Nursing. "We have 20 years in distance education."
As the premier research institution in the state, WVU has long understood its responsibility to meet the needs of its mostly rural population of potential graduate students. With Mountain Doctor Television (MDTV), WVU provided satellite broadcast of its programs to students collected at centers across the state. However, by the mid- to late '90s, the grant for MDTV was running out and the university needed a new, more flexible approach, preferably one that didn't take students on the road for hours. "We couldn't afford to run it anymore," DiMaria admits. "It would have cost $15K per semester per course to continue the program. We teach an average of nine classes a semester, and that was just too much money."
DiMaria looked into web-based solutions and decided to try MediaSite Live, a real-time rich-media web presentation system that automates the capture, management, and delivery of multimedia content. It appealed to her initially because it is essentially plug and play. "You can teach the class in the same way as always because it doesn't require any special technique or adaptation for the teacher," she says. "We can still use our PowerPoint slides, and we don't need a technician to be there while the lecture takes place."
The fact that students no longer had to collect at central points was another advantage.
"Travel here can be prohibitively expensive and costly in terms of time spent," DiMaria says. "Our students are mostly women with a career and a family. They don't have time to spend hours getting back and forth to a central location to take classes."
Plus, says DiMaria, the department has control over the technology. There is no need for a technician to oversee the process. There's "no dial-up, and not a lot of equipment," she says. True, it is one-way video. The students cannot see each other and the instructor cannot see the students, but they can communicate student-to-student through WebCT and with the instructor by clicking a button, the equivalent of raising their hands.
The School of Nursing received its grant to implement MediaSite in the summer of 2002; the pilot class began in January 2003, and in the fall of 2003 the first master's in Nursing (MSN) class of 25 students began. There were concerns, at first, about whether the students would respond favorably to the new method of receiving their classes. Some students said they missed the camaraderie of sitting down with other people in a classroom environment, but that eliminating the need to travel to a central location more than outweighed the need to see their classmates. And since no specific computer equipment is required to participate in the program at all--even without the distance learning component--no one had hardware issues. Broadband access is recommended, since video is not made available to students with only a dial-up connection. DiMaria reports that students are happy with the new system and that enrollment is up: The starting class of 2004 had 32 students, an increase of more than 25 percent.
Costs are down, too. The initial outlay for the first year was about 20 percent of what it would have cost to continue MDTV. "Now we pay maintenance and fees yearly," says DiMaria, "and it's much less. Plus, we own it. We're not just paying for air time." There are no scheduling hassles like there are with broadcast slots, and even though students are expected to "attend" class live and participate, they can also watch the lecture again when it's time to study for the certification exams. WVU also offers continuing education credits for nurses across the state, all using MediaSite. "It pays for itself," says DiMaria. "We weren't going to be able to teach our program if we didn't have this."
The technology and the infrastructure that make this kind of webcasting possible have made great strides toward seamless video capabilities. "There are three major factors in the cost of this: technology, infrastructure, and on-campus operating costs," says James Dias, vice president of Marketing and Sales at Sonic Foundry, Inc., the makers of MediaSite Live. "Digital technology is getting faster, better, and cheaper, and [video] compression these days is nothing short of remarkable. Bandwidth--a major issue in the '90s--is solved by broadband."
Where many video presentation products tripped up was at the ease-of-use step.
"Deans would report to me that they were spending $10,000 to $20,000 per course to put their lectures on the web," Dias says. At that rate, only 10 to 20 percent of the course catalog could make it online, because getting them up and running was a "big stitch-together process." It could take two to six hours per course to put it all together for broadcast.
That becomes expensive in terms of man hours; the real cost is people and time, not the technology itself. It took 10 people to get content and translate it onto the web. Dias felt that an automated process--a box that would record material and translate it into web-friendly streaming video--was what was needed.
Having worked on the education side of the equation as the director of Instructional Technology at Hanover College in southern Indiana, he knows how schools can adopt or drop technology based on its ease of use. "The professor walks in, turns the recorder on, everything is recorded, ready for student consumption in three to five minutes," Dias claims. "The box does the work." And that brings the cost of providing webcasting way down. "Adoption costs are just not as significant as they used to be," Dias says.
Training professors to use the technology takes little time, even, as DiMaria puts it, "for those teachers just getting into the technology." Another hidden cost benefit lies in the fact that the university is capturing what is already happening in the classroom--teaching that is already paid for--and repurposing it as online content. This, says Dias, "takes your existing investment in teaching to the next level."
"It's all coming together" says Ian Widger, president and CEO of Encounter Collaborative, a web and audio conferencing company. The expense of presenting a web video broadcast lies in the lack of integration of all the pieces, he says."The pieces are currently operating like islands, separate but belonging together," he says.
When it's all one package with a single provider/vendor, it becomes affordable.
The goal is to be able to see the person, hear them, speak to them, and share information with them. To get closer to reaching that goal, Encounter has made available its source code for universities to use, free of charge, at www.shareitnow.com. "We're saying, 'Take it and start to use it, build on it, get started,' " says Widger. Free use is limited to one to five users through the university's portal; it will broadcast anything in a window frame--video, data, whatever--to the person or persons signed on to watch. Video broadcast capabilities have improved so much that no one is complaining about asynchronous sound, choppy movement, and blocky pixilization, all common complaints about videophone technology as little as five years ago.
There are still negative perceptions around rich media-driven delivery, based no doubt on high expectations some educators held for the technology and what they see as the technology's failure to deliver on its promise. "People got excited about the technology and were horribly disappointed," says Dias. But the video technology has, he says, arrived. "The watershed moment was when Major League Baseball charged money for a compressed media broadcast of a baseball game. People are willing to pay for [video over the web] because it now delivers on quality. You could see the ball."
Widger places the arrival of the perfected integrated technology two years down the road, but he is no less certain of its arrival. "An integrated solution will be all done and over by 2006," says Widger, "and it will be affordable, no more expensive than using your telephone."
Students aren't worrying about an integrated solution, really. They just want to get the class they want when they want it. And that, says Dias, is driving development as well. When a class is available at any time, over the web, then a student's schedule gets that much more flexible. "It's like Tivo for college classes," he says. "Students nowadays have jobs and families. They want to fit classes in when they want."
With the ability to time shift any class and take it at any time, students on campus are taking advantage of the opportunity to take web-based classes as well. This can resolve scheduling conflicts (Is that Chemistry unit only offered at the same time as that must-take History course?) as well as suit personal preferences (No more 8 a.m. English). "Colleges deliver classes 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. to a population better able to think from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.," says Dias. Web-based classes appeal to the midnight crowd.
It also allows students to stay indoors, warm and dry when the trip to campus is long, wet, or cold. In Anchorage, Alaska (see below), the five campuses of the University of Alaska have experienced an upswing in the usage of their online content, but not by the far-flung rural inhabitants of the state. "Ninety-five percent of kids enrolled in distance learning have an Anchorage area ZIP code," says Rich Whitney, chief information officer at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. He cites the same scheduling and convenience reasons for this, but he adds that his state has many of the same issues with reaching rural students that Rose Ann DiMaria has in West Virginia. Many students prefer not to drive to campus, Whitney says, either because it is too far or because the roads (or lack thereof) make the drive take an inordinately long time. Rural students, whose numbers are so small that to target their needs would be economically unfeasible, are benefiting from the demand of local students for the flexibility and ease of use of online classes. And with dial-up becoming a thing of the past and broadband moving in, Whitney fully expects that trend to continue.
Elizabeth Crane is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, Calif.