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A New College Course : As Enrollments Swell, Schools Turn to Distance Education


FOUNTAIN VALLEY — Meet Michael Forrest, modern-day professor.

Forrest guides Coastline Community College students through earth science subjects, such as glaciers and earthquakes. If you're taking his weekly night course, feel free to ask him questions--but if you want to leave an apple on his desk, you've got to drive about 30 miles to do it.

He teaches at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, and his lectures are piped to a huge video screen in the Coastline classroom. Coastline students can see Forrest crack jokes, courtesy of a maze of hidden telephone lines, and Forrest can see the students on his own screen as they talk to him over a microphone.

It's all part of a growing movement called distance education, in which students take classes on or off campus with television, video, telephone, fax and computer tools.

Televised courses have reached adult students since the 1970s. But now quickly improving telecommunications technology and the so-called information superhighway make distance education a practice that has budget-challenged university leaders pondering its possibilities.

"This is, in fact, a revolution in the delivery of education," Coastline President Leslie Purdy said.

Distance education is rapidly evolving at a time when California will soon be faced with a higher education dilemma: too many students for too few classes.

The California State University system expects 150,000 to 300,000 more students in the next decade. Planners would have to build 10 Cal State Fullertons to teach them, an improbable feat during tight-budget times.

"We can't afford new classrooms, let alone new campuses," said Ralph Mills, research and development director of the CSU Institute.

Educators are trying electronic teaching techniques to accommodate some of the influx. But even people thrilled about the potential of electronic revolution wonder about the unknown consequences of such teaching, and doubt it will be a magic bullet for higher education problems.

"We're going to have to get on top of it or it could be out of control," Pepperdine University President David Davenport said. "It could be very sterile, and you'd just be in a classroom looking at a screen. Why pay $20,000 to look at a screen?"

Some teachers and other campus employees fear that courses by video and computer will mushroom without thought to how they will change traditional college life--not to mention how they will increase faculty workload and alter the way colleges determine how productive teachers are.

"Most of the instructors I've talked to about this are very much concerned with the lack of personal relationships that students will see," said Bob Simpson, a math instructor at Fullerton College. "That's one of the most important parts about going to college."

Ray Christensen, 26, an Irvine Valley College student, said he would rather learn from a teacher in person than on a screen. But he sees possibilities. "If you could have access to great professors (on video), and could interact with them, that would be good," he said.

Randy Lewis, UC Irvine's director of student activities, added: "I hope people realize this electronic thing has some real pluses, but it could have minuses too if it doesn't pay attention to the human side of college."


Educators cite a number of reasons to try distance education: reaching disabled students, reducing commuting to campuses, letting students direct their own learning, giving students a way to escape crowded lecture classes, allowing students to take courses that are scheduled for the same time by attending one and seeing the other later on tape.

Projects now underway in the CSU, University of California and community college systems open a window to what college students may see in the 21st Century.

Take John Witherspoon's class, for instance. Witherspoon, professor emeritus of telecommunication at San Diego State University, saw students in his "Technological Trends in Telecommunication" course in person twice the whole semester.

Witherspoon videotaped the course so students could watch at their convenience. Students used computers to communicate with each other, Witherspoon and a telecommunications expert in Britain, he said.

Witherspoon typed assigned questions during "computer conferences"--open meeting halls in cyberspace in which students see the questions appear on computers at home or in a lab. Students type answers and debate other students electronically. "It became like a seminar," he said.

The class fit the changing schedules of many CSU college students, who often work long hours and have families, Witherspoon said.

In a post-class survey, 60% of his students said they got more personalized attention from the instructor than in a traditional class. But the survey also showed a trade-off: 60% of students also said they preferred to talk to a professor in person, not over a computer.

CSU officials are pushing ahead with other efforts throughout 22 campuses.


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