Technology reprograms the classroom

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By Natalie Alcoba

In a corridor on the first floor of Jorgenson Hall, away from the university’s daily traffic, is the headquarters of a program that doesn’t use classroom space.

The small office is unusually quiet on a Tuesday morning. There are no faculty wanting for a few minutes of the department head’s time, no students filing in and out.

In fact, students enrolled in this program aren’t on campus at all.

The school of disability studies offers almost all of its programs on-line. Its goal is to increase accessibility of postsecondary education to students that can’t make the daily trip to Ryerson.  

Over the past few years technology has filtered into university education, in some cases redefining the traditional classroom model. The words ‘I’m going to school,’ don’t necessarily apply—more often school is coming to students.

The familiar sound of a modem dial-up can transform your home into a classroom and your computer into the messenger of the information.

Access to laptops provided by a university keeps students awake during lectures, but not necessarily focused on their professors, who have to compete with millions of websites for their audience’s attention.

And students can even earn a degree from a university on the other side of the country, having never stepped foot on its campus.

Like other schools, ryerson is following the on-line trend. Courses are already being offered on the Internet by the school of disability studies, and Open College, the Distance Education division of Continuing Education. A proposal was approved last week to integrate laptop computers in Ryerson’s school of information technology management.

The office of Melanie Panitch, director of the school of disability studies is quiet and empty. Rarely is there a lineup of students at her door. She’s met the instructors in her program a handful of times. But her school community is thriving on its digital campus.

More than 100 students from Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia are taking part-time on-line courses that examine issues facing people with disabilities in our society. They are require to take two week intensive sessions at the university over three summers in order to graduate with a bachelor of communications and designs.

Students that apply must have at least two years of postsecondary education. Most of them, ranging from 25 to 55 years of age, are already working in the field so an on-line course gives them the flexiblity to work around their schedules.

The on-line classes are as interactive as possible. Students discuss issues in readings by posting questions and comments on a bulletin board that is set for a 48-hour period. They do group projects without ever meeting in a group, communicating through the phone or by e-mail. The material is kept on the Web for the duration of the course. The classes have a final paper instead of an end of term exam.  

Panitch says offering courses without the constraints of a classroom increases the accessibility of a university education.

But students will have to make three trips to campus for classes. Panitch says the required summer sessions give students the opportunity to put faces to the names of classmates they only know through a modem. “We felt that students needed to meet one another face-to-face, so as to give them the feel of a traditional classroom.”

Panitch meets with each student when they take their first course during the summer. Like a concerned mother, she makes sure they are on track and calls anyone who hasn’t logged on for weeks at a  time.

Although there are no immediate plans to change the curriculum, Panitch says complete Internet instruction is not out of the question. “I can see the day where we might have an option of offering some of the courses [now] over the Internet in a classroom, and the required [in-person] courses over the Internet.”

Correspondence courses have been increasing the access of education for years. Open College at Ryerson offers 111 courses to 3,200 student through print, audio or the Internet.

Richard Malinski, director of Open College at Ryerson, doesn’t think it’s a case of the traditional classroom versus the electronic classroom. “The Internet is providing another alternative for the learner, for those that can’t come down here.”

Currently, Open College doesn’t offer full degrees through correspondence, but Malinski says it’s only a matter of time before that changes.

The University of Phoenix has taken accessibility to education to the next level. Students enrolled in the on-line education program don’t have to step foot inside a classroom to get their degree. THe university, which in 1989 started offering complete on-line education—courses, assignments and exams over the Internet—targets working adults as their student base. Applicant have to be at least 23 years old. The more than 20,000 students enrolled—whether they’re logging on while soaking up California’s rays, or sitting at a desk overlooking Boston Harbour—are earning degrees in business, management, information systems, information technology, nursing or education. Courses cost $1,200 U.S. each and run for five weeks .

Brian Mueller, chief operating officer at the University of Phoenix On-line, says this alternative to traditional education gives adults with busy schedules the opportunity to obtain degrees or upgrade their existing ones.

He doesn’t think traditional education will ever be replaced. “I think there will always be a need for certain people to have face-to-face interaction with professors.”

What on-line education can do is force the quality of academic programs and support services to  improve. “It won’t force people to move away from the classroom, but it will force the classroom to improve what it offers,” says Mueller.
Ruth Tetrykanyn waits for a class to start at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. She is surrounded by students who are feverishly typing away. But Tetrykanyn, a political science major, isn’t taking a computer course. She’s one of nearly 4,000 students that bought into Acadia’s digital campus, attaching 21st century technology to the traditional classroom.

Four years ago, Acadia spearheaded a program that made laptops mandatory for all of its students.

The Acadia Advantage equips students with an IBM ThinkPad for their entire university career, at a yearly cost of $1,200. This is the first year that all students have been wired.

The cost for a connected campus is embedded in Acadia students’ tuition fees, which are just under $6,000 each year, the highest in the country. Since students lease the computers as part of their yearly fees, they can’t opt out of the plan.

Ryerson recently approved a laptop program for students in the school of information technology management. The mandatory computers would be leased by students for $1,600 a year. If everything goes according to plan, the school will begin phasing in the computers by the fall of 2002.

Tetrknanyn, president of the Acadia student union, says having a campus that’s connected eliminates the need for conventional forms of audio and visual equipment. Some of her professors use Microsoft PowerPoint as a presentation too to replace overheads. The laptops in the class are linked through a network that can run the same program on everyone’s computer.

Although Tetrykanyn says students have responded well to this initiative, she still has concerns. “IBM has a big stake in the university because of the ThinkPads the students lease. As long as IBM isn’t infringing on what happens at school, it’s okay.” So far, she says course content has not been affected by the company’s presence.

The laptops have prompted many professors at Acadia to post their lecture notes on the Web. For a student body with universal Internet access, this is the perfect excuse to sleep in and miss an early class. Tetrykanyn says faculty are forced to come up with creative ways to keep students coming back.

When professors get to class, they have to combat a barrage of clicking sounds that fire into the air. Students who should be listening to their professors, are distracted by the endless possibilities of information at their fingertips. But it takes concentration to look like you’re not checking your email, when you actually are. Tetrykanyn admits she has often been lured by the mesmerising hum of busy keyboards beckoning her to log on. Students time their typing, wait for a pause when the professor takes a sip of water from his water bottle, and steak quick glances at their screen.

Yet with all this technology at their disposal, some faculty members still resort to conventional forms of teaching. This is often dictated by the program’s curriculum. Theatre doesn’t require a laptop for its core courses. “Basically, some students are paying $1,200 to have e-mail and ICQ,” Tetrakynyn says.

A campus filled with students carrying around laptops rather than binders changes the social aspect of university life. People don’t have to wait until after class to finish a conversation. They can log on to ICQ and plan their weekend while learning about the French revolution.

“Acadia is so wired,” says Tetrakynyn. “People chat on-line, break up on-line. No one communicates face-to-face any more.”

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