By GRETEL J. BACKMAN
Pull up a chair, get a notebook and turn on the television: Biology 101 is about to begin — or math, chemistry or sociology, to name a few of the classes taught as telecourses from various schools in Utah.
But while convenience and flexibility are among the top benefits of taking such courses, the future holds many unanswered questions about where technology is leading both students and professors.
“Telecourses are regular college courses,” according to the KULC Channel 9 Web site at www.uen.org. “However, the lecture and class assignments are disseminated over the airwaves and are viewed off-campus. … Nearly 5,000 students take telecourses annually (in Utah).”
These courses are available through Utah Valley State College, Salt Lake Community College, Utah State University and the University of Utah. BYU does not offer any telecourses at this time.
“Now education is no longer time — and location-specific,” said Rob Merrills, telecourse program manager at the U of U.
While most students would prefer to attend live classrooms, because of work and school schedules some cannot.
“Students can make contact with the institution of their choice for a longer period of time,” he said. “In this kind of format, students still have access to that institution.”
Convenience is the main reason students take these courses.
“I can stay at home and watch it on TV,” said Christopher Patch, a U of U student who just completed a film studies telecourse. “If I miss a class, I can watch it later or I can tape record it … but the biggest (benefit) is being able to be at home, do my wash and eat dinner while I’m watching. It works out great.”
But it takes adapting. While telecourses offer the same material as other courses, the presentation is different.
“Students must get used to a different presentation style and different study skills,” Merrills said.
Students have to write their questions down and contact professors either by e-mail or during office hours. This encourages them to “be more proactive as (students) and take more initiative in their learning process.”
This may be uncomfortable to students at first, Merrills said.
“A lot of students who don’t succeed usually don’t have experience where they have had to take responsibility for their own education,” said Lori Palmer, a math teacher and associate professor in instructional design and distance learning at UVSC. “The responsibility is more on students.”
Students still have opportunity to contact the instructors, even though face-to-face contact is minimized by the television screen.
“For my telecourse we have a web site (where) students can leave questions and other students can reply,” Palmer said, although students don’t take too much advantage of it. “We don’t have real-time discussion. That’s why we have these — so they can study at a time convenient for them.”
In Patch’s film studies course, the class met four times on campus during the quarter for study groups, as well as test reviews. Students had access to copies of the recorded course at the library, along with a purchased text book and study guide.
“I felt with the layout and how (the course) was organized and administrated, it was just perfect,” Patch said. “It was a wonderful class.”
While telecourses have been around in this format for 10 years, teachers are becoming more savvy and are putting forth a better product, said Roberta Lopez, independent study administrative assistant at the U of U.
The nature of BYU and its international influence creates geographical limitations for offering telecourses, said Duane Hiatt, director of editorial and media productions at the Continuing Education Department. But courses on the Internet provide a way to “extend the values of BYU to those outside the campus community,” he said.
BYU Independent Study offers 10 Internet courses, with six more that will be added soon. These courses allow instruction over the Internet and CD-ROM.
“Electronic media is really a wonderful thing for us,” Hiatt said. It allows more people to take advantage of BYU without burdening the teachers or physical facilities, he said.
The U of U also offers Internet courses.
“We see (online courses) as a step ahead of students,” Lopez said. “Students coming up will be so computer literate and will be used to learning off the computer … It’s the wave of the future.”
But with this wave of technology comes problems.
Allen Palmer, assistant professor of communications, said that on one hand, technology supplements what educators have been doing for a long time. On the other hand, it’s a problem.
Take computer projections on a screen, for example. It completely changes the atmosphere in the classroom.
“We lose interaction, and students slip into entertainment mode,” Palmer said. Technology can disable interaction. It helps to convey a lot of information quickly, but it doesn’t help the dynamics of the classroom, he said.
But Merrills feels that interaction doesn’t necessarily suffer.
“As students participate more by the Internet … we will see some interesting benefits from student population that were underdeveloped,” he said.
Students who were hesitant to voice their opinions in class may be more apt to use the Internet to communicate with professors, Palmer said.
In regards to telecourses, Mr. Palmer said, “We don’t know enough to understand yet what conditions and subjects work best. We don’t know enough what the possibilities are.”
“I don’t ever think (telecourses) will replace traditional classes,” Merrills said. Rather, they will “extend any university resources. I always expect to see live classes with alternatives and technology. It’s the smart way to do it.”