Gary Cloud (left) and Tom Hotvedt say distance learning keeps A.T. Still’s students and professors in touch with one another and the needs of patients.

May 19 2009

Technology Powers Distance Learning at A.T. Still University

Network communications help A.T. Still University embed med students near local community health centers.

Linda Shuler, a second-year medical student at A.T. Still University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona (SOMA), has found a way to get closer to her patients: She keeps 160 miles between her and the school’s core campus.

Shuler — one of just seven students studying at the university’s intimate Flagstaff, Ariz., community campus — is part of a distributed education endeavor begun in September 2008 that blends learning modules with on-demand learning opportunities, videotaped lectures and virtual learning communities with hands-on clinical studies. Professors record their lectures at the university’s Mesa, Ariz., campus, which then distributes them to 11 community campuses scattered from Hawaii to Brooklyn, N.Y. There, faculty “facilitators” are on hand in the classrooms to generate and manage discussion around health diagnosis and treatment and answer any immediate questions.

Three main technology elements power this unique capability: a Cisco Systems Dynamic Multipoint VPN (DMVPN), Cisco 3825 Integrated Services Routers and Microsoft’s Distributed File System (DFS).

DMVPNs are virtual private networks that let branch locations communicate directly with each other over the public wide area network (WAN) or Internet. DMVPN technology lets the university provision a new site quickly, says Iain Leiter, a network administrator with A.T. Still. And it offers redundancy, so if a site loses a connection to the Arizona campus, it fails over to the other campus location in Missouri where Leiter works.

Leiter says one of the reasons the college opted for the 3800 Series is because it supports a wide range of Cisco modules, such as the centralized Wireless LAN Controller Module and the 16-port switch module with a Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) option. “We are glad we chose the 3800 Series, as it has the flexibility that we need,” says Leiter.

“With the modules installed, the network logon is the same at every location, so students can access the wireless network without any need for us to reconfigure their notebooks at a remote site,” Leiter explains.

The 3800 Series also lets the college use copper or fiber connections when integrating with Internet connections or other networks.

Tom Hotvedt, a network administrator at the university, says Microsoft’s DFS is used to push course materials and videotaped lectures from the Mesa campus to the HP DL320 storage servers at the 11 satellite sites. DFS lets administrators group shared folders located on different servers and present them to users as a virtual tree of folders known as a namespace. A namespace provides many benefits, including increased availability of data and load-sharing. Another advantage for students is that it provides a common pathname to the data regardless of which community campus they are on or which server they access.

With all the elements deployed, A.T. Still medical students can always connect to each other and with data resources they need. “Now, they can go onsite and seamlessly have the same experience they did while in Mesa,” adds Hotvedt.

Iain Leiter says A.T. Still’s “Network logon is the same at every location, so students can access the wireless network without any need for us to reconfigure their notebooks at a remote site.”

Photo Credit: Dan Videtich

Community Learning

Online, virtual and group learning experiences are designed to bring classroom studies to life, says Gary Cloud, assistant provost and associate dean of the medical school. “In order to do that, we need to have students in the community,” he says. SOMA accepts about 100 students per class, and students move to a community campus in their second year.

The community campus learning experiences benefit students, the school and patients alike. Students maximize their time in the clinic, supplementing four hours a day of classroom time with off-hours review of other learning mediums. A.T. Still benefits by maximizing its resources: The same lecture can be sent to several locations. And patients (and the community as a whole) benefit from having medical students who are more comfortable in a clinical setting and who may plant roots upon graduation.

Students from SOMA join more than 12 million students who enrolled in college-level, credit-granting distance education courses in the 2006–2007 academic year, according to a December 2008 report, Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions, published by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

75 percent of online classes use prerecorded web-based material, rather than real-time presentations.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Some of the best colleges and universities offer distance learning. The State University of New York system of universities, for example, offers 12 master’s, 31 bachelor’s and 87 associate degree programs. Cornell University offers 23 certificate programs from 23 different certificate series in its Johnson Graduate School of Management, School of Hotel Administration, and School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Distance learning has gained particular favor among institutions with medical programs, including Michigan State University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of North Carolina.

The distance learning program at A.T. Still is well on its way. In January, Shuler and her classmates, who keep a tiny house just a few yards from a clinic operated by Flagstaff-based North Country HealthCare, were studying hematology, having already pored over lectures on dermatology, the gastrointestinal tract and urology. Most of the lecture videos are recorded and kept on servers operated by a medical software service provider. From there, they are downloaded onto a Lenovo notebook and viewed in the community campus classrooms using a Sony projector.

Students can also download any of the content to their personal notebooks so they can review it at their leisure. “We use the medical learning online pretty extensively as a resource for downloading our podcast lectures and PowerPoint presentations,” says Shuler. “We even take our weekly quizzes online. It’s nice to have all that information in one place. And it’s nice to be able to access the material multiple times. When we were in Mesa in our first year, rarely was anything ever recorded.”

Other Distance Runners

When it comes to distance learning, there are different ways to get from point A to point B:

  • Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations has set aside four rooms for distance learning, each with a notebook connected to the Internet, LCD projectors and a digital document camera. Two of the rooms also offer a Wacom pen display, an interactive sketchbook that can be connected wirelessly to a large display.
  • Johns Hopkins University’s Distance Education Division of the School of Public Health created a custom course management system. All online courses are recorded in a studio on the School’s East Baltimore campus. Course lectures combine audio, PowerPoint slides, animations and Flash movies. Lectures are delivered using the Flash plug-in. On the back end, FuseTalk powers threaded discussions. Adobe’s Flash Media Server is used to power Audio Chat, a custom-built application that permits small groups of students to communicate via voice and text chat. LiveTalk, built on top of Adobe’s Acrobat Connect Pro platform, is a core communication tool in all of the Johns Hopkins online courses. The courses are delivered through a custom-built course management system, which runs on top of the highly capable ColdFusion application server.
  • Fresno City College in California offers two forms of distance education: One is online and uses the Blackboard learning management system. The other uses two-way video conferencing between different campuses of Fresno City College as well as those at Reedley College and four college centers that make up the State Center Community College District. Students enrolled in the online form need Internet access; those enrolled in the video-conference classes must attend specially equipped classrooms.
<p>Steve Craft</p>