Business graduate student Peter Hoi smiled, and the professor asked if he had something to say.
"Well, I just know all the customers would already know about the lowest price offered," Hoi said during one of his Executive MBA classes at UT Arlington's Fort Worth Center.
A few of his classmates nodded in agreement and a discussion ensued. His fellow students were in Fort Worth, but Hoi was more than 8,000 miles away in Hong Kong and talking via videoconferencing.
Hoi's remote classroom, which can be wherever he is in the Far East, represents a revolution in the UT Arlington learning experience. Lectures downloaded to cellphones, online testing and grading, blogs, clickers, avatars (see Get another life) -all are methods that professors and students use to teach and learn.
UT Arlington students stretch around the globe-from China to Egypt, Mexico to Iraq, Arlington to Maine, Canada to Kazakhstan. Little did Hoi know when he accepted a promotion at Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. that he would finish the last year of his EMBA via computer monitor.
The major drawback: It's 3 a.m. in Hong Kong when it's 1 p.m. in Fort Worth. All-nighters might still be frequent in college life, but it's an every-other-week occurrence for Hoi, who made the videoconferencing commute for a year. He and his cohort graduated in December.
Electrical engineering graduate student Melvin Robinson often downloads his Discrete Transforms classes to his iPod.
"As a person who travels overseas a lot, it's really handy to have the course material in a portable format," said Robinson, a test management specialist for Noble Drilling. "It allows you to still view classes in situations when you are away from the computer, like plane rides or when the Internet connection is not very good, as in some foreign countries."
The podcasts are even convenient at home.
"I can steal precious minutes for class while not being so isolated from family life."
Robinson, who tests control systems for heavy equipment that runs offshore rigs, believes that his technology-dependent education is as good as what's offered in the classroom.
"Distance education opens up a whole new set of possibilities for people who work," he said. "In particular, getting a graduate education would have been almost an impossibility for people who work full time, or at least it would have taken many years to stitch enough evening classes together to meet the program requirements.
"Technology has afforded us more flexibility. Now it doesn't matter if a class is taught at 3 p.m., right in the middle of the day, and thus unavailable to the full-time worker. It will be waiting for your viewing pleasure after work."
Last fall about 275 graduate engineering students enrolled in classes that were podcast from UT Arlington's video production studio in Nedderman Hall. The College of Engineering offers 25-30 courses via podcast each semester.
Most students listen or watch on conventional computers, but a growing number use portable devices like iPods, iPhones or video-capable cellphones.
"Students who live on airplanes really love the technology," said Dave Davis, the College of Engineering's distance education director. "They can go to a Wi-Fi hotspot and download their class while they drink a cup of coffee."
Alumna Crystal Anderson ('04 BA), who is working on a master's degree in the School of Urban and Public Affairs, thinks universities should deliver education the way students want it.
"This is a new generation of student," she said. "College should be consumer driven. I understand the importance of the classroom setting, but we are the customers. I should have access to my education when I need it, when I want it and be able to replay it or fast-forward it."
The convenience of high-tech delivery attracts far-away students like Hoi as well as those closer to home.
Arlington resident Diane White ('05 BA) is in her third year of teaching a kindergarten class. She has a 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter who are active in sports, and a husband. She doesn't have a lot of time to sit in a classroom.
"I like online courses because you can work at your own pace," said White, who's pursuing a master's degree in education. "I can work on my courses while my children are sleeping."
Faculty members like the convenience, too.
Education Assistant Professor Joy Wiggins presented in 2006 at a teaching conference in Israel-from her Dallas home.
"I was able to contribute and make contacts without going to Israel for the conference," said Dr. Wiggins, who had a headset with microphone and used Interwise software that shows icons of people in the virtual meeting. "I was able to take questions about my presentation. Technology has opened up so much."
Pete Smith, an assistant vice president for academic affairs who oversees UT Arlington's Center for Distance Education, uses a similar setup to talk with colleagues from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Dr. Smith, whose background is in foreign languages, is a program officer in the Network for Effective Language Learning based at Drake. The program helps small- and mid-sized private colleges and universities adapt their language instruction to the 21st-century student.
So does all of this spell the end of traditional learning?
Experts, educators and students say that while technology and distance education are changing the learning paradigm, the desks-and-blackboard setting will survive.
Michael Moore, UT Arlington's senior associate provost and an associate professor of political science, says high-tech education isn't for everybody.
"You have to be more disciplined," said Dr. Moore, who more than 10 years ago taught the first UT Arlington course offered exclusively online. "Some people are going to want the experiences of college. You can't go to a Rihanna concert online. You can't go to a basketball game. You can't go to events online. You will lose those experiences."
School of Urban and Public Affairs Dean Richard Cole says in-class instruction will always have a place. However, some of his traditional classes are shrinking.
"The upside is that you get these diverse viewpoints," said Dr. Cole, who has students from Ethiopia, Korea, Taiwan, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia. "The downside is it sometimes takes away from your physical classroom."
Smith said he doesn't think a traditional classroom setting suffers when technology is introduced. "It isn't a zero-sum game. I think you'll see growth in distance education, technology in the classroom and traditional enrollment."
One classroom technology that's gaining popularity is the personal response system. Students are given remote control devices-clickers-on which they can press buttons to answer questions projected on a screen at the front of the room. Results are posted within seconds.
Computer science and engineering Lecturer Tom Rethard's Embedded Systems class used the clickers one day last fall in a mini-Jeopardy format where students selected a category and point value. The higher the point value, the tougher the question.
Ogden Deene, one of the students, said the clickers "force you to get more involved" in the class. Another student, Noorin Fatima, said the system is often more interesting than a lecture.
Mauricio Aviles likes the instant feedback. "It helps you to know what you must study to do well."
Rethard said the radio-frequency technology essentially replaces flash cards. "It's just a different way to get your point across."
Darrell Ward, president and chief executive officer of eInstruction, a Denton company that supplies UT Arlington with the clicker system, went to market with the technology in 2000. The firm initially targeted K-12 classrooms but introduced the product to higher education in 2003 and now has more than 700 clients.
"We still think we're just scratching the surface," he said.
Blogs have more than scratched the surface. Smith said more than 100 UT Arlington classes use blogs (short for Web logs), a messaging and information system that serves as a chronological history of a discussion.
Wiggins uses blogging in her undergraduate classes to encourage participation. Call it active learning, the central theme of the University's Quality Enhancement Plan.
White loves the anonymity of blogging and online discussion.
"If there's something you didn't understand, you can post a question and wait for your peers to answer it," she said. "I'm the type of person who sits in class and if I have a question I'm afraid to ask it because I don't want to sound dumb."
Moore said blogging and online discussion are more democratic.
"You definitely have people who wouldn't comment otherwise. You don't have several people dominating the discussion like you do in a traditional classroom. And because it's written, you tend to get smarter, more thoughtful answers. That makes the course stronger."
Spanish Associate Professor Chris Conway enthusiastically embraces blogs.
"Blog technology has been revolutionary and empowering," he said. "Blogs allow us to talk across all platforms. All that's needed is text and images. It has simplified so much."
Dr. Conway puts video and audio lectures on the blogs, hands out class materials and links to Web sites that he wants students to visit.
"That way I'm not taking up class time with handing out pieces of paper or excessive lecturing. Instead of having 10 minutes discussion time, we have 50."
His totally online course this spring, Culture and Globalization in the Hispanic World, features speakers from across the state, nation and world via video and audio recordings. For the final project, students will interview and audiotape or videotape businesspeople from Latin America.
The class will create an online publication with contributed articles and a blog.
"Each class will give something new to the next class," Conway said. "I could see this becoming a great resource tool for anyone studying that subject."
As technology continues to transform the learning experience, Robinson sees off-campus students like him benefiting, as will on-campus students.
"New methods of communicating, which is what the education process is all about, already supplement the old-fashioned oral medium of instructor to student," he said. "A continued evolution of communication will allow even more channels from instructor to student, thus providing more information for the student."
— Herb Booth
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