Distance Learning

March 1, 2000
Keep up with the changing times by using technology to bring education as close as your personal computer.

The work environment is not static; it changes rapidly. The occupational health and safety field must change just as quickly to keep up. In the last 20 years alone, health and safety professionals have responded to new challenges, such as building-related illnesses, bloodborne pathogens and emergent diseases. We've applied our art to new industries, like integrated circuit manufacturing and biotechnology, and devoted increased energies to ergonomics, lead-based paint and other long-standing concerns.

To keep pace, we continually adopt new technology to develop new tools for identifying, evaluating and controlling occupational hazards. Advances in mathematical modeling and computers, real-time monitoring for hazardous chemicals, medical surveillance and control technologies enable us to provide better worker protection.

This constant change places increased educational demands on health and safety professionals. While the continuing education industry provides a dazzling array of seminars and short courses, even one-day training events can be impossible to attend due to work demands, personal situations and travel budgets.

Education is more than professional short courses. In many cases, career goals compel midcareer professionals to seek new or advanced degrees. Unfortunately, if the desired degree is not available locally, the career goal remains simply a dream.

What can you do when the education you need isn't available locally? You could try distance learning.

Distance learning is any learning environment where the teacher is physically separated from the student and information transfer occurs via some communications medium. Distance learning media cover a range of technologies, including paper-and-pencil correspondence courses, videotape, video teleconferencing and Internet-based classes.

The quality of the student-teacher relationship varies depending upon the medium used. Correspondence classes, videotape instruction and most Web-based classes provide for little or no teacher-student interaction. Video teleconferencing, on the other hand, lets students and teachers interact almost at a classroom level.

While video teleconferencing classes provide excellent student-teacher interaction, existing technology requirements limit class availability to teleconferencing centers. Fortunately, the same technology that enables personal computer users to communicate over the Internet with inexpensive cameras and microphones can bring interactive distance learning to any Internetworked personal computer.

Tulane University Distance Learning

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending interactive Internet-based classes offered by the Center for Applied Environmental Public Health (CAEPH) at Tulane University. The classes, part of its master's degree program in occupational health and safety management, had their roots in a video teleconference industrial hygiene program Tulane provided for the Department of Energy at its Hanford site in Richland, Wash.

According to Dr. Susie Allen, clinical assistant professor at Tulane and manager of the distance learning program, a needs assessment conducted as part of the Hanford program found demand for programs aimed toward midcareer health and safety professionals. The assessment also indicated that potential students were dispersed -- pointing to distance learning as an obvious tool to reach the target audience.

"Interactivity is an essential element for quality distance learning programs," Allen said. "Kevin Johnson, our technical guru, proposed a system that would allow us to get a class of students online simultaneously and provide for two-way audio and graphics. The current bandwidth capability of the Internet system does not allow real-time video. However, we felt that we would not lose much academically by the student not being able to see the professor's 'talking head.' The system proposed by Kevin met our criteria to provide a classroom setting with the capability for a high degree of interactivity."

Johnson's solution provides quality teacher-student interaction with minimal hardware requirements. The program is essentially open to anyone with the latest bargain-basement PC or laptop computer and a headset microphone. Software, provided by Tulane, includes Microsoft Internet Explorer, WinFTP for submitting assignments electronically and LearnLinc www.learnlinc.com.

LearnLinc is the key to the system and an excellent choice for distance learning. LearnLinc is a complete Web-based package for course management, student enrollment, class delivery and online discussion groups. The LearnLinc "classroom" not only supports streaming audio and video but synchronizes software on the students' computers with the instructor's computer.

LearnLinc gets the most out of limited bandwidth connections by having students download class materials, such as a slide presentation or a video file, to their PCs before class, eliminating transmission delays during class. When class time comes along, students log in at the CAEPH Web site and select their class, automatically launching the LearnLinc classroom.

The LearnLinc classroom screen has three primary areas. The Live Class window displays a list of everyone in the classroom and includes a button that students use to "raise their hand" during class. The instructor can "give the floor" to a student so that the entire class can hear the student when he speaks into his microphone. The chat window is standard Internet chat where any text entered by a student is sent to the entire class. The text of the chat window can be saved as a file for later review. The bulk of the computer display screen is devoted to supporting synchronized software applications. In a Tulane class, a Web browser displaying the teacher's slide show presentation typically occupies this area.

The combination of Internet chat and audio communications creates a wonderfully dynamic learning environment. The chat window is a hot bed of activity during class, a place where students ask the teacher questions, answer the teacher's questions and hold side conversations. Of course, side conversations in chat are visible to the entire class, so private conversations are best held using ICQ www.mirabilis.com or other Internet messaging software.

Telephone modem connection quality varies, so students with poor connections can be "dropped" during class, forcing them to log back in. Investing in cable modem or DSL Internet access can minimize dropped connections. The increased bandwidth is important for future enhancements.

Interactive Internet-based distance learning places special demands on students and teachers. The effort CAEPH dedicates to making its program a success is impressive. Typically, two people are working diligently behind the scenes during class to solve any technical problems encountered by the students or instructor and to help the instructor keep on top of student questions and comments in the chat window. CAEPH also records the audio portion of each class as a Real Audio file that is posted to a course Web site for students who missed class or want to review the material.

This brings up my only real complaint with LearnLinc: It needs a "record" function that saves the entire classroom environment -- chat, synchronized software and audio -- for later playback. While saved audio is better than nothing, significant content is lost by not having the audio played in context with the chat window and other software used during the class.

A variety of tools helps students and teachers communicate outside of class. While LearnLinc supports course-specific discussion groups, I found that students did not use them, preferring instead to use e-mail, Internet chat tools or the telephone to communicate outside of the classroom. Instructors make themselves available to students during telephone office hours and over e-mail.

Students I interviewed were uniformly enthusiastic about the program. "With this program, I can be in class in a moment with no travel time," Brian Herbst said. "I use my laptop to log into class when I am traveling so as to not miss a class. I can work on assignments at night in the motel and submit the completed work by e-mail or FTP. Without this type of a program, I would not have been able to pursue my educational and career goals unless I left my current employer and moved."

CAEPH has developed an excellent interactive distance learning program that uses existing technology appropriately, incorporating new technology only when it enhances the learning process. CAEPH is accepting applications for its full semester. Additional information on the program is available at its Web site at caeph.tulane.edu.

More information on distance learning is available on the Distance Learning Resource Network Web site at www.wested.org/tie/dlrn. The site contains an excellent selection of links on distance learning and distance learning opportunities.

Contributing Editor Michael Blotzer, MS, CIH, CSP, author of "Internet User's Guide for Safety and Health Professionals," is an occupational hygiene and safety professional, writer and computer enthusiast who brakes for animals on the information superhighway. Mike can be reached by mail addressed to Occupational Hazards, by fax at (216) 899-1581 or by electronic mail at [email protected].

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