A Virtual Education

Will the chat-room replace the classroom at the University of Virginia?

By Dave Ready

You've had a busy week. On Monday, you registered for your first college classes, and you managed to get into all of them. Classes began Tuesday with your professors giving out syllabi. Wednesday, you decided to read your first assignment, since your first paper was due Thursday. The assignment was trickier than you expected, but you got help from four people in your class and visited the professor in his office only an hour before the paper was due. All the while, you've been meeting hundreds of new people, and joining several campus clubs. A typical first week in college, and you haven't even left your room.

The virtual university, where students and teachers interact only over the Internet, may seem like a virtual impossibility, but it's not so far-fetched anymore. Students at today's top schools are already spending several hours a day on the Web--as part of their studies. At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, students do homework and talk to professors over email, find syllabi and talk with classmates at the class Web site, and soon will be able to register online. Newer, faster technologies and video conferencing programs are quickening the pulse at institutions of higher education, and Mr. Jefferson's university is no exception.

Just two years ago, U.Va. began its Teaching and Technology Initiative (TTI), providing grants for select faculty to find innovative uses for technology in all areas of academia. The results have been promising. "Faculty are increasingly using the Web to extend contact with students," says John Alexander, manager of instructional technology at U.Va.'s division of Information Technology and Communications (ITC). "We've provided an instructional tool-kit for faculty to set up Web pages, so you don't even need to know HTML." Thanks to the tool-kit, students in almost 200 U.Va. classes can find course materials and give instructor feed-back over the Internet.

But ITC's simplification of the Web was not enough for 35-year-old computer science professor Jorg Liebeherr. "We are teaching students about technology," Liebeherr once told a local reporter, "but the way we are teaching students is still in the last century." With the grant he received from TTI two years ago, Liebeherr has been bringing the Internet to life with his still experimental "grounds-wide Tele-Tutoring System," or gwTTS.

The system uses high-speed Web connections to let students and faculty speak with and see each other live. Among gwTTS's video conferencing features are a "virtual classroom," "electronic office hours," and "remote study groups," all designed to make learning more convenient and inclusive. Liebeherr hopes gwTTS will revolutionize classes not only at the University of Virginia, but all over the world: "Someone could take one course at U.Va., take one course at the University of California at Berkeley and take an Italian class in Rome."

Until now, video conferencing via satellite has been possible, but notoriously expensive to pick up. But with the advent of ATM telephone lines, fiber-optic cable, and U.Va.'s recently announced plans to connect with Internet2 (twenty-five times faster than the original), long-distance video is faster, cheaper, and clearer than ever before. This is music to Bob McNergney's ears.

Like Jorg Liebeherr, McNergney has been working hard to bring people together over the Internet. A professor at U.Va.'s Curry School of Education, McNergney heads CaseNET, a program that trains teachers and education students to use technology over the Internet. Bob's staff at U.Va. develops case-study curricula for thirteen universities and ten school districts all over the world. Students and faculty can discuss the cases with students in their own class as well as students at other participating schools, all within gwTTS-like video conferences.

McNergney admits that with traffic so heavy on the Internet, reception is sometimes not what it could be. During a recent CaseNET teleconference with US Assistant Attorney General Reginald Robinson, participants were forced to use an actual telephone line for audio transfer. That didn't faze Bob: "Being on the cutting edge means you get nicked every once in a while."

CaseNET's Web site offers an opportunity for visitors to sign up for "A full-credit, case-based course on educational problem-solving taught over the Internet." But McNergney doesn't like the term "virtual classroom." "CaseNET is not a correspondence course. These are real classes that meet," he says. "We train the teachers who are on-site assisting students with the curricula. We're working hard to maintain quality through a high level of interactivity."

McNergney is excited about the new opportunities opened up by CaseNET. "Midwestern schools now have a chance to interact with government officials whom we take for granted, living so close to Washington, D.C." CaseNET can also make teacher re-certification cheap and easy.

But in terms of offering opportunities to help teachers, nurses, and engineers go back to school so easily, the University of Virginia is far from cutting edge. There is currently no entity at U.Va. that can give a degree for course work done off-grounds. "We're having enough trouble getting the university to give credit for [Web-based] classes, let alone a whole degree," explains Bob Hutchison, chief telecommunications engineer for U.Va.'s Division of Continuing Education.

Driven by the increasing cost of higher education and by businesses sending employees back to school, hundreds of colleges have begun offering long-distance "classes on demand" to older students. But tradition is strong at U.Va., and not too easily swayed by the winds of the day. As Hutchison puts it, "Mr. Jefferson intended every student to come here and kiss the ground and streak the lawn." Tradition aside, however, until we hear otherwise from ol' Tom himself, U.Va. will continue to expand its classrooms' walls over the Internet.

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