Computers & Geosciences, Volume 23, Number 5 May, 1997

Pamela Gore
DeKalb College
Decatur, Georgia

John C. Butler
Department of Geosciences
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204

This issue of Computers&Geosciences is devoted to preparing content for distribution via the Internet. As has become our practice, a set of WWW-based links to educational resources to accompany the special issue is now available from the ANON home page and from the Virtual Geosciences Professor.

I thought it appropriate to ask Dr. Pamela Gore, DeKalb College, Georgia to describe her experiences in using the Internet as an integral part of offering geology classes in a distance education mode. Professor Gore has had a great deal of practical experience in designing and implementing programs which take advantage of the so-called „new technologies¾. I believe that anyone engaged in providing training, short courses, or formal courses will benefit from her comments.

Georgia Geoscience On-line: Distance Education and the Internet in Geology Classes at DeKalb College

I began introducing my freshman-level Geology students at DeKalb College to the World Wide Web in Fall 1994. I have developed a Web site called Georgia Geoscience On-line with home pages for each of my courses. Recently, I have begun teaching Physical and Historical Geology as Distance Learning courses. I have found that having course notes available on the Web is very important to student success in a Distance Learning course. Electronic mail gives students increased access to the instructor outside of class. At the freshman level, it is also important for the instructor to have occasional in-person visits to the distant site.

DeKalb College is a multicampus two-year unit of the University System of Georgia, with four campuses and one center, with a total enrollment of approximately 16,000. (The student population is about 36% non-white and 11% international). Full-time geology faculty are present at only two of the five locations. With Distance Learning technology, it is now possible to reach out to the under-served locations, and offer a technology-supported course taught by a full-time faculty member. I was able to begin teaching Geology via Distance Learning as a result of a grant from the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia through their Connecting Teachers and Technology program.

The Distance Learning courses are taught in GSAMS classrooms (Georgia Statewide Academic and Medical System). GSAMS is a network of Distance Learning classrooms connected by T-1 telephone lines. Using GSAMS, people in up to eight locations can see and speak with one another. Georgia has the largest and most comprehensive distance learning and healthcare network in the world, with more than 350 sites statewide in K-12 public schools, colleges, universities, technical institutes, hospitals, prisons, and special sites such as Georgia Public Television, and ZooAtlanta. The equipment in a GSAMS room includes: (1) an ELMO visual presenter (a downward-directed video camera linked to a monitor, which is great for showing specimens and illustrations in books), (2) a networked multimedia computer linked to a monitor via a scan converter, (3) a printer, (4) a fax/copier, (5) telephone, (6) video cameras at front and rear of each classroom, which are controlled by an assistant at a touch panel, (7) ceiling-mounted microphones above the students, (8) a cordless microphone for the instructor. There are two monitors at both front and back of the classroom; one shows video being received from the remote site, and the other shows video being transmitted. A codec (coder-decoder) unit converts the analog signal to a digital signal, compresses it, and sends it along telephone lines to the receiving site, where another codec decompresses the signal and converts it back to an analog signal which can be displayed on the monitor.

This is the second quarter that I have held two classes simultaneously on two different campuses. I have about 24 students in each classroom. The class meets twice weekly, and I alternate between sites, holding lab on the day I am on-site. At the freshman level, I find that it is important to visit the remote site for several reasons. The students and I get to know one another better, which helps them feel less isolated. Students who are intimidated by the technology also get a chance to ask questions in person. E-mail is used throughout the quarter to announce assignments and give instructions, to publicize campus and geologic events, and to communicate individually with students.

My course notes are available on the Web. I use a Graphical Web Browser routinely in all of my classes to present course notes and related outside materials (including maps and images). My Web site also includes a syllabus, course objectives, and assignments. Students print out the notes before class. Most of the students like this because they can listen in class and not have to write frantically for two hours. It is also helpful for non-native speakers of English, at-risk students, disabled students, and those who are absent. I find that having notes available does not adversely impact attendance. On the contrary, looking at the notes as they print forces the students to have SOME exposure to the topics being covered, which generally increases interest.

In a typical ten-week quarter, I introduce the class to e-mail and a web browser during a one and a half hour session during the first laboratory period. At that time, they are given an assignment to visit various sites to answer questions, to view museum specimens, maps or field localities, and to collect data for interpretation. They have approximately two weeks to complete the assignment. I have found that due dates need to be flexible to accommodate the various types of downtime the students may encounter (waiting to use a computer, one-hour time limits in the computer lab, long waits for graphics to download, "no response" from sites, printers out of paper or ink, server downtime, network problems, etc.). At least one question requires them to use a search-engine. The second assignment is a research paper using only Web sources. For example, students might research a currently-erupting volcano. The final assignment is to write a web page on a geologic topic,including text, hyperlinks, and images. Students may work individually or in groups. I spend an hour or so introducing hypertext markup language (HTML) to the class around the midpoint of the quarter in the computer lab, and also have an HTML guide on the class home page. Student projects are posted on my Georgia Geoscience On-line web site.

In Fall 1994, I began introducing my Geology students to the World Wide Web. At that time, very few had heard of the Web, and virtually none had ever used it. A year later (Fall 1995), fewer than 10% of the students had used a Web browser before enrolling in my class. By Spring 1996, 25% of the students had used a Web browser. A survey of students at the beginning of winter quarter 1997, shows a huge increase. The majority (68%) have previous Web experience. The use of electronic mail is not as prevalent, however. In Spring 1996, 15% had used e-mail previously. By Winter 1997, the number had only increased to 20%.

What do the students think about distance learning? Opinions are mixed. Although the majority (64%) of the students feel that they have adequate access to the instructor, many (58%) would prefer a "live" professor at every class. Nearly all (86%) agreed that the computer-based presentations and notes on the Web were helpful, and an equal number (86%) agreed that using the Web helped them to learn more about Geology. About a third of the class (32%) would take another GSAMS class, and slightly more (39%) would recommend a GSAMS class to a friend. Written comments indicate that students like using the new technology and the computers. They like seeing and interacting with students on another campus. A few students indicated that they would like to be able to interact with the class from their home computer. On the other hand, students commented that they found it hard to pay attention when the instructor was off-site. Students at the remote site seem to lose attention more rapidly, and when they begin talking, it disturbs other students, who then have problems hearing the instructor. One commented that if the notes had not been available on the computer, the class would have been hard to understand.

I would encourage anyone planning to teach a Distance Learning course to have their course notes available on the Web for student access, to communicate regularly and often with students by e-mail, and to plan for occasional visits to the remote site, if possible, particularly at the freshman level.

Since August 10, 1997

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