Summer 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA6
Microcomputers in Distance Education
Distance education can be an important catalyst for rural and community development. Part of Extension's mission has been to offer continuing education for professionals, the opportunity for individuals to take college level courses in rural areas, and short courses to help farmers and small businesses adapt to new technologies. Traditionally, these courses have been offered on site, which is costly in time and travel. The implementation of conference telephone calls, video recorded programs, satellite link-ups, and microcomputer educational programs have made it possible to offer such courses remotely.
Distance education can be an important catalyst for rural and community development. Part of Extension's mission has been to offer continuing education for professionals, the opportunity for individuals to take college level courses in rural areas, and short courses to help farmers and small businesses adapt to new technologies. Traditionally, these courses have been offered on site, which in costly in time and travel. The implementation of conference telephone calls, video recorded programs, satellite link-ups, and microcomputer educational programs have made it possible to offer such courses remotely.
College level courses offered through distance education present a special challenge. The geographical separation makes it difficult to offer a course that's consistent with effective learning. Five important aspects of effective learning are:
- Contact between the student and the instructor.
- Active learning through writing out answers as opposed to
passive learning associated with multiple choice type questions.
- Timely feedback to the instructor on students' comprehension.
- Timely feedback to students on work done.
- Opportunity for students to make revisions to work done and learn from their mistakes.1
The following case study demonstrates how use of available computer and telecommunications technology can enable distance educators, including those in Extension, to provide effective learning experiences.
In the program reported here, microcomputers with telephone modems were used as tools in two courses-introductory microeconomics and introductory macroeconomics-at St. Peter's College. The college is operated by Benedictine monks in the rural community of Muenster, Saskatchewan, a village of about 300 people, 70 miles from Saskatoon. With decreasing numbers of monks, and a desire to offer a full range of courses, the college has moved outside the Benedictine community to find instructors. Many outside instructors are associated with the University of Saskatchewan and travel from Saskatoon to teach these courses once a week for three hours. Students and instructors find it difficult to learn and teach respectively when their only contact is once a week during class time. Using microcomputers with out- of-class assignments lessened the significance of this difficulty.
The class met on Wednesday evenings from 7-10 p.m. A homework assignment was given to the students at the end of each class. Students reviewed the material covered in class, prepared answers to the homework assignment, and, over the weekend, entered the answer on computer disk. Each student had an assigned time of one hour for the computer since they had only one computer for 30 students. The students' answers were transferred by modem to the instructor's computer in Saskatoon on Monday evening of each week. The instructor graded the homework assignments on disk and transferred them back to the computer at St. Peter's College by modem on Tuesday evening. A hard copy of each student's assignments was then printed out. Students picked up their graded homework and made corrections on the hard copy to hand in Wednesday evening.
Introductory economics courses involve intense use of conceptual graphs and verbal explanations. Retention of the economic concepts is greatly enhanced when the student must draw the graphs and explain what he or she has drawn. The Macintosh computer was chosen for this project due to its graphics and multitasking capabilities. In this course, students used a drawing program to create the graphs. The students then inserted their graphs into a word processing program where they completed the answer by typing a verbal explanation of the graph. The instructor simply changed font types to add comments, which made it easy for both student and instructor to differentiate the comments from the original answer.
This program addressed the five aspects of effective learning noted above. The grading of assignments and the revisions by the students involved contact between the student and the instructor, albeit indirect. In this system, the students had to formulate answers and type them out. This compares to a situation where students would be left on their own with a workbook of multiple choice questions. The assignments provided feedback to the instructor about students' comprehension of the material. The timing of the assignments enabled the instructor to adjust the upcoming lecture to the students' needs. Students received prompt feedback on their work and were able to correct mistakes while the topics were still relevant.
The program was very successful with benefits experienced by the students, instructor, and college. The students said that although they worked harder, they learned more than if they hadn't done assignments on the computer. A secondary benefit for many students was an opportunity to learn to use a microcomputer, something many hadn't previously done.
The benefits experienced by the college were twofold: the students learned more and the financial cost was small relative to other alternatives, such as paying to have the instructor travel more than once a week to offer the lecture or offering a tutorial or recitation session with a teaching assistant. The cost of acquiring one microcomputer, combined with long-distance telephone charges, was small relative to the salary and travel costs associated with these other alternatives. In addition, the college acquired a capital asset it can use beyond this course. The benefit to the instructor was a more enjoyable class to teach since the students were learning more. Feedback about how the students were grasping the material allowed the instructor to deliver more pertinent lectures, leading to a better atmosphere in the classroom and a more positive learning experience.
Significance of the Results
Computers, combined with telecommunications, offer many opportunities as tools in distance education programs. A program similar to this could be used for Extension programs in a variety of subject areas, inservice training of county Extension agents, a correspondence course, or satellite transmission of lectures. This program was simple-it used existing computer hardware and software. The advances in the computer field mean we're limited only by our imaginations in implementing effective distance education programs in the future.
1. Gordon Thompson, "How Can Correspondence-Based Distance Education Be Improved? A Survey of Attitudes of Students Who Are Not Well-Disposed Toward Correspondence Study," Journal of Distance Education, V (Spring 1990), 53-65 and Jerrold E. Kemp and Don C. Smellie, Planning, Producing, and Using Instructional Media, 6th ed. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1989), p. 19.