Aug 05 2011

Go the Distance for Online Students

Why should universities and colleges expand their distance learning programs? Because today's students demand it.

Busy students say online education not only gives them the flexibility to set their own schedule for completing coursework, but it also provides them more options for how to learn (and relearn) course material. Students raised on ubiquitous wireless access and video games can also take advantage of online classes that offer more interactive experiences, from recorded video lectures to live webinars that allow far-flung students and faculty to collaborate.

Jeff Seaman, co-author of the Sloan Survey of Online Learning, which surveys 2,500 institutions annually, says distance learning helps colleges attract students they normally can't reach. He says many students want an education but can't attend classes on campus because of work, family or mobility constraints.

For many colleges, expanding distance learning often coincides with a technology upgrade. At Eastern Maine Community College, for example, expanding learning options was one of the primary reasons the college upgraded its campus network, installing a 10 Gigabit Ethernet backbone from Brocade to help support video conferencing and the increased use of video for online courses.

"For us to grow our student population and increase distance education offerings, technology was a focus … and one of the big building blocks was bandwidth," says Tim Conroy, the college's dean of IT.

Although Eastern Maine used to offer mostly blended classes — regular classroom instruction that includes an online component — it now plans to offer more fully online courses. But the University of North Carolina at Charlotte still prefers the blended approach.

"If a faculty member teaches a large course, and more and more classes are increasing in size, they opt for a blended approach because it's a way of engaging students," says Valorie McAlpin, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UNC Charlotte. "They will use electronic textbooks, videos, web conferencing — any technology that engages the learner."

For more about how colleges and universities are expanding distance learning programs, turn to "Online Expectations."

Security Focus

Delivering courseware online presents a new set of security challenges for colleges and universities. The Technical College System of Georgia recognizes this, which is why it installed an antivirus filtering gateway from Barracuda Networks when it expanded its distance learning program.

TCSG has 15,000 employees and more than 200,000 students (traditional and online) throughout its 26 colleges. That's a lot of computers to keep safe.

Steven Ferguson, senior network engineer at TCSG, says he uses the Barracuda appliance for web traffic and another product for e-mail. The tools monitor traffic as it enters and traverses the network, identifying anomalies. For more information on how TCSG and other colleges are protecting their networks, see "Network Gatekeepers."

Colleges are also creating more interactive learning environments for students by taking advantage of virtual worlds such as Second Life. For example, students at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., can visit a Second Life version of the Globe Theatre, the familiar haunt of playwright William Shakespeare. And professors who teach many courses online say Second Life helps them foster two-way communication with students. To learn more about ECU's use of Second Life as a teaching tool, turn to "Virtual Learning Comes Alive."

Colleges and universities that want to attract and retain top students know they must deliver interactive technology applications that are secure and available 24x7. Students expect to learn with technology today. It's our job to make it accessible and easy to use.

Ryan Petersen,
Editor in Chief