Distance Education

The Virtual Geoscientist -- Distance Education
Special Issue of Computers&Geosciences

Previous special issues of Computers&Geosciences have been accompanied by an ANON set of links to Internet resources. For this special issue I have reproduced the introduction to the Special Issue in the following text with links to pages maintained by the authors.

I conducted an experiment in a course in Physical Geology that I taught in the fall semester of 1995 and repeated in the fall semester of 1996. What started out to be a few exercises on the World Wide Web (an introduction to search engines and a visit to Volcano World) soon evolved to more than I had expected -- Physical Geology.

Although I tell myself that I did not produce a course that could (should?) be distributed or delivered asynchronously, the process of preparing the material required that I think about how such material impacts higher education and continuing education in general. This is an area which must be addressed by the corporate sector, scientific organizations, and the higher education community as we continue to move into an information-rich, ever expanding, highly distributed world.

"Futurists" tell me that a 22 year old will face an average of 6 career changes in the next 42 years. During the past 10 years I have written many letters of recommendation for former geology majors who desired admission to law school .... an MBA program .... a teacher certification program, etc. Many, but certainly not all, of these former students were faced with a career change or sensed the need to obtain additional skills as part of their professional development. Will the 22 year old in 1995 attempt to earn another formal degree to make his or her career changes in 2002 or 2009? I don't think that is realistic. Skills developed during formal and informal learning experiences will add flexibility but will that be sufficient? I believe that education is and will continue to evolve away from today's norm and that the Internet (or the granddaughter of the Internet) will play a prominent (if not dominate) role in its evolution.

In 1994 I "volunteered" to put together a special issue of Computers & Geosciences which focused on the Internet (1995, no. 6). It was clear early on that all of the contributors were concerned about their material being out-of-date given the six to seven month delay between final submission of manuscripts (November, 1994) and publication of the special issue (June, 1995). Not one of us was disappointed. The World Wide Web, for example, evolved so rapidly during that time period that much of the material probably seemed seriously antiquated to the readers who must have wondered where we had been. Although no systematic survey of the contributors was attempted, several noted that the timely distribution of such a special issue would have been much better handled via the Internet itself.

The set of articles did seem to be well received by a group of readers who were also intrigued with the technology for its own sake. Many of these authors, like many of the readers, viewed this as a technology looking for applications. During the past two years, many individuals in this group have formed "partnerships" with those whose interests were in learning and communication who were examining some of these "new technologies" as potential vehicles for changing education.

Who will develop content that can be distributed on the Web? I am simultaneously fascinated, impressed and distressed by the fact that most people who produce Web resources are not paid to do so. This is changing somewhat as more organizations begin to explore the potential of the Internet. However, I believe that the bulk of the content will continue to be produced by individuals hunched over their keyboards in a darkened room, working by light from their color monitors. Perhaps such producers are destined to become the virtual hermits of the electronic age. All of the papers in this collection were produced by individuals who responded to a call for papers addressing the question of the role of the Internet in distance/distributed/asynchronous education. An attempt was made to sample the opinions of individuals with different points of view and different primary responsibilities and I believe we have succeeded in offering a more or less balanced product. Clearly, no attempt was made to reach a consensus on any issue and even more clearly, there would be no consensus on the questions to be asked let alone on the answers.

Papers focusing on some of the broader issues facing the corporate sector, discipline-based scientific organizations, and higher education lead off the collection. Davison and Chen (biochemistry, University of Houston) offer their thoughts on what would be needed to move beyond the current state of the Internet . Carr, Buchanan, Adkins, Mettille, and Sorensen (Kansas State Geological Survey) speculate on the impact of the Internet on the future of scientific communication in the earth sciences. The long term involvement of that organization in publishing geoscience materials adds an important perspective. Pickering (educational psychology, University of Warwick) offers a perspective from a discipline which attempts to learn how learning occurs and how one can attempt to evaluate what has been learned.

The second section begins to narrow the focus of the collection to the geosciences. Butler (geosciences, University of Houston) reviews the extent to which faculty in the United States and Canada are using the Internet to distribute complementary/supplementary resources for courses taught in the "standard" setting . Lamberson, Johnson, Bevier, and Russell (geological sciences, University of British Columbia) offer their assessment of a departmental commitment to take advantage of the distributed nature of the Internet as an integral part of their curriculum. As an aside, Michelle Lamberson is the only post doctoral fellow that I know who was hired specifically to produce and help faculty to produce, content for distribution via the Internet. Such a financial commitment seems missing at the present time in most universities. Paul Browning (geology, University of Bristol) offers a engaging, if somewhat irreverent, perspective on the use of the Internet in teaching and learning in the U.K.

The third section focuses on two important activities that need to be considered when planning to distribute materials via the Internet. Schimmrich (geology, University of Illinois) writes a column in the Journal of Geological Education which provides the readership access to Internet-based collections of discipline-specific information. Being able to efficiently, routinely, and systematically search the world wide web for resources is essential if the contents produced are to avoid being out-of-date almost as soon as they are posted. Robin and McNeil (curriculum and instruction, University of Houston) follow with an introduction to creating web-based materials using a variety of media.

The fourth section consists of what are essentially case histories. Boyle, Bryon and Paul (geology, University of Liverpool) provide an assessment of their efforts to develop a computer aided paleontology course. Patterson (geology, Carleton University) gives students in his paleontology courses the opportunity to produce a multimedia exhibit for the Hooper Virtual Paleontological Museum. DeLeeuw (statistics, UCLA) describes the bare bones statistics electronic textbook which has resided on the Internet for the past year for all to use. Boyd and Romig (geophysics, Colorado School of Mines) describe an example of cross-disciplinary education using interactive case studies to teach an upper level course in geophysical exploration. The Society of Exploration Geophysics (SEG) has helped sponsor the development of this course as they are interested in being able to provide training in both synchronous and asynchronous modes. I recall taking the grandfather of this course back in the early Paleozoic at a time when slide rules ruled and the one "electric calculator" was locked in the chairman¹s office. The distributed nature of the Internet offers the opportunity to take old ideas and formats and deliver them in a different fashion. The paper concludes with "Virtual Seminars" by Roice Nelson of Walden 3D, Inc.

I take this opportunity to thank collectively the authors who agreed to submit a paper for consideration for inclusion in the special issue and who put up with my inquiries as to ²where was the paper². Frankly, email has made this part of preparing a collection of papers both less expensive and less of an overall hassle. What used to require several months when manuscripts were distributed by snail mail was accomplished in less than six weeks from start to finish.

I drew upon the authors, colleagues, and readers of Computers & Geosciences as reviewers for these papers. In no particular order, the following individuals deserve our thanks for their service: Hugh Walker, Warren Huff, Fritz Agterberg, John Mann, Andrew Pigott, Phil Ingram, Eric Grunsky, James Carr, Christopher St. George Kendall, Gerard Middleton and Don Feisinger.


Since June 20, 1997

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