Distance Learning No Longer a Far-Fetched Idea for Colleges

By Erdley, Debra | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, May 31, 2011 | Go to article overview

Distance Learning No Longer a Far-Fetched Idea for Colleges


Erdley, Debra, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


On a warm spring evening, a dozen graduate students slowly file into a second-floor classroom in Hamburg Hall at Carnegie Mellon University.

More than 10,300 miles away, it's early morning in Adelaide, Australia. When class convenes in Pittsburgh at 6 p.m., it's 7:30 a.m. for the folks Down Under.

Yet, a group of students in Adelaide is joining associate teaching professor Tim Zak's class in Pittsburgh for a graduate business course in strategy development, courtesy of a real-time video hook-up that couldn't be sharper if the students were in adjoining rooms.

Welcome to the world of distance learning, where colleges facing shrinking resources are utilizing modern technology to maximize their reach and offer students opportunities they might never otherwise have.

Two large video screens mounted high on the walls show the Australian students taking notes and marking texts as Zak lectures. Screens in the Adelaide classroom receive sounds and images beamed from Pittsburgh to Australia.

"I've taught from remote locations before, but this is the first time we've simulcasted. It's virtually seamless," said Zak, director of CMU's Institute for Social Innovation.

It's working so well that Kate Ambrose Sereno, a graduate student in Pittsburgh, is working on a class project on a team with three Adelaide students.

"For a recent assignment, the team conducted a discussion via Skype at 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, then while I was sleeping here in Pittsburgh, my project teammates in Australia completed the initial draft," she said. "By the time I woke up the next morning, it was my turn to contribute to the draft, and I delivered my part by the end of that day so they could wake up to my deliverable.

"So far, it's been great. I knew when I enrolled that I'd meet a lot of international students at CMU, I just didn't realize I'd be working with students in Australia," Sereno said.

Distance learning has been carving a growing niche in higher education in recent years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 20.4 percent of the nation's undergraduate college students took at least one course through a distance learning program in 2007-08, the most recent year for which statistics were available. Almost 4 percent said they took all of their classes via distance learning. …

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