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Distance Learning: A CHI 97 Special Interest Group

Lisa Neal, Judith Ramsay and Jenny Preece

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The CHI 97 informal SIG on Distance Learning met on Tuesday, March 25, in the Atlanta Hyatt.

The organizers were Lisa Neal, EDS, Judith Ramsay, South Bank University, and Jenny Preece, University of Maryland Baltimore County.

The report that follows summarizes the discussion among the 30-40 attendees, most of whom are from academia, and are using distance learning. A number of other people could not attend the meeting but submitted comments by email after the meeting.

Like most `first meetings' much of the time was taken up with introductions and explanations of how people are involved in the topic. However, through this process a number of important issues were raised. A deeper understanding of these issues would undoubtedly contribute much to the state-of-the-art of learning and teaching at a distance mediated by technology. This review ends with a summary of key issues, which the organizers urge the HCI community to discuss. It is important that an HCI perspective is included in the many debates currently aiming to shape the future of distance education.

SIG Discussion

The organizers of the SIG were motivated by the following problem: organizations and universities are searching for ways to reduce the cost and increase the availability of education. A variety of technologies are being used to replace or supplement the face-to-face classroom. These include video conferencing, audio conferencing, computer conferencing, Internet classes, and computer-based training. While these technologies can be used to reach geographically-dispersed students, minimal attention has been paid to the effectiveness of each technology, and to combinations of technologies, for education. As the number of distance learning programs increase, and the range of delivery techniques grow, we think it is important to examine these issues in order to best select and deploy technologies and to evaluate the effectiveness of the technologies for instructors and students.

Lisa Neal (EDS) began the discussion by describing how she started teaching HCI and Collaborative Environments by distance learning a year ago as part of EDS' corporate education program, motivated, in part, by students' increasing difficulty to obtain travel funding to take on-site classes and their even greater problem of missing multiple consecutive days of work to attend class. Distance learning allowed classes to be spread over longer periods with shorter meetings that students could more easily fit into their schedules. It was also especially appropriate for the topics being taught since the classes were, in essence, their own labs. Neal raised a number of issues, such as how it is different for an instructor to prepare and deliver classes and how to pick appropriate technologies, and establish effective protocols, for class meetings. Neal has explored a number of technologies for delivering her classes, including audio conferencing, video conferencing, and various forms of computer conferencing, and found that some worked better than others. She called for a greater understanding of what it means to mediate learning and teaching via these technologies and how they can best be used in concert.

Judith Ramsay (South Bank University, London), a researcher in computer mediated communication, drew attention to the importance of taking account of the learning task. She pointed out that although notions of task and work are central in HCI, `learning', one of the most complex of all tasks, often takes second place to technical and logistical issues. This was an important recurring topic throughout the discussion.

Betsy Comstock, a usability engineer at PictureTel, commented that each use environment is different and therefore what is needed for success is different. She cited some successful uses of video conferencing for medical education at Boston's Deaconess Hospital.

Jenny Preece (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) agreed that good evaluations of the effectiveness of using different technologies and combinations of technologies for particular learning tasks was needed. Jenny commented that the scale of distance learning classes was an important factor in determining which technologies to use, how these technologies are deployed and how learning is supported. She pointed out that developing courses for hundreds or thousands of students as happens at the British Open University, is quite different to classes of 10 or 20 students. In the former, technology and programs for its use must be robust. Much more experimentation is possible with smaller groups. She also commented that many people greatly under-estimate the cost of distance learning assuming that it is a cheap alternative to conventional face-to-face teaching, which is not true. Developing quality distance learning courses is not a cheap option. It is important to set-up infra-structures that support and provide feedback to students and relieve faculty of as much administration as possible.

A participant from Michigan State Medical School explained how they had campuses in 6 cities and used desktop video conferencing to deliver classes and for faculty meetings. She picked up the issues of `evaluation' and described how her school carried out extensive evaluations to measure how interactive sessions were and to evaluate the faculty's performance. One reason for doing this is to provide guidelines for the instructors on how to teach with these technologies.

Laurie Dringus (Nova Southeastern University) said that her school has offered distance learning programs for thirteen years. She has found that the tools control and constrain how classes are taught. They have developed an electronic classroom using a blackboard metaphor. Like the Open University, they support both synchronous and asynchronous communication and use some similar techniques, such as bulletin boards with themes. Some of the issues they are dealing with are scale and the time involved for faculty to develop and deliver distance education.

Marla Weston, from a University. in Western Canada, is concerned about cost-effectiveness and cost-recovery in the distance learning programs they are setting up. She pointed out the high cost of many technologies for purchase and support, and also the high cost of travel when people come to a class. She is especially concerned about ways to reach people in remote places, such as Northwest Canada, where there may not be roads and telephones.

Joe Konstan (University of Minnesota), talked about his experiences with teaching classes in which 80% of the class was face-to-face and the rest was connected by 1-way or 2-way video. He also talked about teaching classes with weekend meetings, and the commitment necessary on the part of students. He said that there is a captive market right now, i.e. these classes may be better than nothing but they are not necessarily a competitive educational product. Also, he didn't find sufficient attention paid to the additional time needed by faculty to run classes.

Tom Hewett (Drexel University), echoed this latter concern. Drexel began a distance education program two years ago. In an examination of the benefits of the program, they found that the faculty put roughly 25% more time into the classes but were happy to do so because they could do the work whenever and from wherever they chose. He felt that this was not a cost-benefit analysis in which the effectiveness of the classes was considered. Hewett also talked about the problems for a teacher of teaching other than face-to-face after years of refining an effective classroom presence.

Lisa Neal and others agreed with Konstan and Hewett, finding that there was too little data examining effectiveness. She has been interspersing her distance learning classes with face-to-face ones and found that the on-site ones required much less time to set up and that she enjoyed having visual feedback from the students while lecturing. On the other hand, her distance learning classes allowed the students to have more hands-on, non-simulated experiences with technology, to do projects not feasible in a one-week class, and to benefit from the expertise of guest lecturers located around the world. Ultimately, she saw that the classes were different but both formats worked, providing different benefits to students.

Carolyn Gale (Vanderbilt University Center for Innovation in Engineering Education) described an asynchronous Web-based class in Informatics that contained 86 senior undergraduate/Masters-level graduate students. While students that were not experienced computer users had a steep learning curve at the start of the course, the majority learned to use the technology within two weeks. Even with two assistants and three graders, assessment and evaluation took an enormous amount of time. An interesting aspect of the course was to group four students together with a mentor from industry who would advise and assist a group with their semester project. Students used email, WebNotes, and synchronous chat tools to complete assignments and keep in touch with other students, teachers, and mentors.

A consultant from the Netherlands, talked about the significant differences between synchronous and asynchronous classes and student support. He said that many students do better when they have time to compose what they want to say. Joe Konstan said that teachers could better support different learning needs face-to-face.

Gail McLaughlin, an HCI instructor at EDS, talked about the home pages she now has her face-to-face classes construct on their intranet, after seeing the benefits of these in Neal's distance learning classes. Similarly, she has been using Internet Relay Chat (IRC) for end-of-class evaluations after seeing how well that worked for distance learning classes and realizing it had significant advantages for both her (data captured electronically) and for the students (seeing each other's feedback) over the paper form she used to use.

Picking up again on the need to understand better the way students learn with technology, Judith Ramsay commented that learning and technological support took a back seat at the SIG with the emphasis upon the nuts and bolts of course delivery. Ramsay noted that the way one feels about this depends upon one's standpoint upon entering the room. Namely, a substantial number of the participants either are or have been professional DE course deliverers, and as such fully understand the difficult problems of delivery. She has been taking a more research-oriented perspective in focusing upon how specific media have been used (or not) and how they support (or fail to support) the range of diverse DE tasks. She stressed that absolutely everything (i.e. the use and the reported success of the technologies, the amount of learning that takes place over these technologies) hinges upon the type of task that is being done.

However, she also commented that the SIG opened her eyes to logistical issues concerned with developing and delivering distance learning. It is easy to underestimate the resources and logistics necessary to make distance learning successful and she cautioned that others should also be made aware of these issues.

A number of other people, who were not able to attend the SIG, sent email describing their situations and raising issues.

Daryle Gardner-Bonneau is the Director of the Office of Research, Michigan State University/Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies. His group does research on the use of information technologies of all kinds in medicine. They believe strongly in the importance of evaluating these systems. They also recognize the need for cost-benefit analysis and point out that reports in the literature are frequently over optimistic with regard to the cost of distance learning.

Brian Reilly and Bonnie Nardi from Apple Research Laboratories have an on-line course on digital photography for high school teachers. They are interested in finding out how teachers and students use the various technologies being developed by Apple.

Smadar Kedar works for Northwestern University (NU) department of Academic Technologies. She co-ordinates the Chicago Campus office, focusing on serving the faculty of the professional schools (medical, dental, law, business and continuing education) in their teaching and research needs. There are numerous reasons for NU's interest in distance learning, including having two campuses 15 miles apart, and having a continuing education student body from across the Chicago land area.

An Agenda for the Future

Issues raised during the discussion fell into two broad areas: learning with or mediated by technology, and the logistics of developing and delivering distance education.

Learning with Technology

We must focus much more attention on understanding:

  • How students learn with currently available technologies. Learning needs to be examined at different granularities, with deeper understanding of fine grained learning tasks as well as at the level of whether or not overall learning objectives are met.
  • As well as examining learning by individual students, collaborative learning at a distance needs to be understood much better. Many professional societies (e.g. ACM and the British Computer Society) aim for students to be trained in team work. As more companies attempt to leverage the cost benefits of tele-working, collaborating and learning at a distance will become increasingly important.
  • What is good practice in orchestrating different technologies? How do students learn from such combinations of technology?
  • What kind of learning and emotional support do students need for distance learning? In particular, what is needed to make distance learning a social process?
  • How is distance learning evaluated?
  • What are good models of distance learning that could be made more widely available?

Logistics of Course Development and Delivery

  • How does the cost of distance learning compare with face-to-face?
  • How is teaching via distance learning different to face-to-face teaching?
  • What are the additional demands on faculty of distance learning?
  • What kind and how much support and feedback do faculty need to provide for students?
  • What kinds of infra-structures are needed to support distance education?
  • What is good practice in developing and delivering distance education?
  • What are the relative costs of using different kinds of technology in distance education?

Of course, ideally all of these factors need consideration before setting up a distance learning program. However, this is not always possible; particularly when working with state of the art tools, but being aware of these issues will help programs to succeed. Often, as in the case of product design, HCI considerations are brought into play too late and then people wonder why programs do not achieve their goals.

About the Authors

Lisa Neal is a Senior Research Engineer at EDS

Judith Ramsay is a Research Fellow at The Center for People and Systems Interaction

Jenny Preece is Department Chair and Professor of Information Systems at the University of Maryland Baltimore County

Authors' Addresses

Lisa Neal
Three Valley Road
Lexington, MA USA
tel: +1 617-861-7373

Judith Ramsay
Centre for People and Systems Interaction
South Bank University
103 Borough Rd.
London SE1 OAA England
tel: +171 815 7421/7414
fax: +171 815 7499

Jenny Preece
Information Systems Dept.
University of Maryland Baltimore County
1000 Hilltop Circle
Baltimore, MD 21250 USA
tel: +1 410 455 6238
fax: +1 410 455 1217

No earlier issue with same topic
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SIGCHI Bulletin
Vol.29 No.4, October 1997
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