Crookston students master long-distance learning

Peter Kauffner

Three Crookston students will be receiving master’s degrees from the College of Education and Human Development today — without ever having to be within 300 miles of their professors.
Instead, the three took all of their required courses through interactive television and the Internet. The remote classes, known as distance learning, are administered by the University’s Distance Technology Education Initiative.
Barbara Muesling, director of outreach programming for University College, said the graduating students will be able to attend Crookston’s commencement ceremony, even though their college is at the Twin Cities campus. “The degree was with the College of Education, but we wanted the ceremony here because this is where the students did the course work.”
On interactive television, an instructor speaks to a class, usually at the studio on the St. Paul campus, and video technology is used to simultaneously show the lecture on a television screen in classrooms on other campuses.
Video cameras are also trained on the students, so the instructor can view both classrooms at the same time. Each desk is equipped with a microphone so that everyone at both sites can hear any questions.
There are more than 1,000 students enrolled in the distance learning program’s more than 100 interactive television courses, said Daniel Granger, director of the Office of Distance Education.
“I think they’re just as good (as in-person classes) once the instructor gets the technology down,” said Cindy Christopherson, who will receive her master’s degree in human resources development today. “It usually took a couple of class periods to get that down.”
The technology enabled Crookston to offer a master’s degree for the first time.
“For those of us who live in this rural area, we wouldn’t have a way to get a master’s degree without a program like this,” said Barbara Ricord, a program associate for outreach programming. Ricord is also a student in the program, although she is not graduating this quarter.
Despite the advantages in terms of commuting time, Jody Horntvedt, another graduating student, found the new technology required a difficult adjustment.
“At first, it took some getting used to,” Horntvedt said. “It took scheduling, because you weren’t there with the instructor to ask the questions that needed to be answered.”
The instructors who used e-mail were much easier to communicate with. “Then you could get your questions answered and not play phone tag,” she said.
Horntvedt also found it difficult to pay as much attention to a television as to an in-person instructor.
“It also required driving to the actual classroom and sitting in front of a television, which at least for me meant ‘fall asleep time,'” she said.
Interactive television also allowed students on different campuses to get to know one another without meeting in person.
“We got to know the students at the other classrooms around the state,” Horntvedt said. “We learned their names (and) what their interests were by the questions they asked.” She said she has remained in touch with several of her virtual classmates.
Horntvedt said she found that distance learning required more self-discipline than in-person learning.
“I don’t think it’s the ideal for every type of student,” she said. Students who rely more on formal class structures might not be satisfied by distance learning, she said.
The best instructors were the ones who used graphics, group interactions and question-and-answer periods rather than straight lecture, Horntvedt said.
Some students would like to see the program made even more accessible.
“If each county had a site you could go to, I think that would be wonderful,” Christopherson said.
The University will offer four new courses via the Internet this summer, but administrators have no plans to establish additional interactive television sites, Ricord said.
University President Nils Hasselmo will be the commencement speaker at today’s ceremony.