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CPSR Newsletter Winter 1997


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LEEPing into Distance Education

by Marsha Woodbury

CPSR News Volume 15, Number 1: Winter 1997


The Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign is filling the needs of remote adult learners by developing an experimental model for delivering high-quality professional instruction through its new distance education M.S. scheduling option, LEEP3. LEEP3 gives adults the opportunity to earn a Masters degree in library and information science whether they live in Vermont or Alaska.

The program is being closely watched, because the economic plan for many universities and colleges includes distance education. Why? For students -their customers - the ability to take courses at a distance is an economic and practical necessity. If one school doesn't serve them, soon another will.

As computer professionals, CPSR members also want to observe the progress of computer-based distance education via the Internet. We are concerned about the quality of the educational experience, the stress factors, the expense, and questions of access. Aspects of the GSLIS program display an enlightened approach that could provide a benchmark for other institutions that want to embark on this path without sacrificing students' and faculty members' quality of life.

Academic Excellence
The LEEP3 scheduling option is identical in course requirements to the in-residence program. The program started officially with the on-campus residency weeks in July, 1996. From the start, LEEP3 has had an outside evaluator measuring all aspects of its effectiveness.

Maintaining quality has meant asking the same level of performance of distance learners and residential students. To reach that level, LEEP3 students have to be able to cope with isolation. For example, on a database assignment they were without the benefit of a well-equipped and well-staffed computer lab, without live demonstrations, and the individual help offered in the computer laboratory.

Any faculty member in the LEEP3 program has release-time or summer support before teaching a course. The extra time is used to prepare materials and gain expertise with the software. The faculty get an upgraded computer capable of using the latest audio and visual software, complete with CD-ROM and external speakers.

The students are carefully selected. They must be able to learn independently and willing to collaborate with the faculty in designing and refining new ways to deliver instruction. They have to provide their own Internet connection and have strong technological support either from their workplace or their own resources. In the initial group there were 25 students, 20 from Illinois and another five from outside the state. GSLIS will double that number in the fall of 1997.

The LEEP3 technical staff actively help students and faculty via phone and email. One student even loaded her computer into her car and drove it to the campus for troubleshooting.

Students are required to have access to specified computer equipment. For example, the minimum PC had to be a 486 or better. GSLIS has experimented with audio and video transmissions over the Internet, MOOs, MUDs, WebChat, email, and listservs. The lab equipment included a top-of-the-line Mac, PC, Powerbook, video camera, video player, and an NT server. The initial goal included synchronous class sessions with video capture and audio software. However, ordinary modems cannot handle video transmissions very well, nor the multi-user interactive simultaneous audio transmissions. As one professor said, the information superhighway turns into a dirt road once it leaves the university campus. By the end of the semester, faculty and students communicated via the WebBoard conferencing and MUD. These avenues are proving very successful, though they limit our interactions to sending typed messages back and forth. The LEEP students retained their enthusiasm despite significant technological problems. As professor Bryce Allen wrote, "Some students experienced serious difficulties in obtaining the minimum of connectivity required to complete an Internet course. In several cases, there were problems with local internet providers being unable to maintain an acceptable level of service. One student had an Internet provider file for bankruptcy and cease operations during the first week of class."

Points of Interest

  • Teaching from remote locations. Faculty do not have to live and work at the university. A professor from the University of Missouri, Bryce Allen, taught one of the courses.
  • On-campus visits. Students came to campus for two-weeks of "boot camp" during the summer of 1996. This residential period allowed the students to bond together in a manner that assisted the group cohesion later. *    Pace of Study. Distance education does not mean self-paced learning. Students who carry a mental model of moving at their own speed must adjust to completing weekly readings, sending in papers on time, participating in synchronous class sessions and group sessions. They must also check into classroom chat areas frequently.
  • Time management. A primary skill for the adult student is blocking out time to do the work. Often, the GSLIS student is fulfilling many roles, such as employee, parent, and community member. Each week, students must set aside about 15 hours for each unit of classwork. This understanding has to be clear from the start.

Looking at LEEP3 after its first six months, it would appear that the students are extremely enthusiastic. Emily Vescogni wrote: "I can think of no other learning environment where so many individuals can come together to effectively share their unique perspectives. The experiences of my classmates have greatly enriched my understanding of the issues information professionals face on a daily basis." In spite of the adjustments and difficulties, the students are eager to recommend the program and continue on this track, because as another student put it, "LEEP3 adds a new dimension. Now I have an incredible level of communication with my fellow students. In no classroom situation could you possibly get the chance to hear - in length - from every student, or get the opportunity to respond to every thought."

In summary, the technical support, time, and attention given faculty and students has paved the way for apparent student satisfaction with LEEP3, despite the fact that the technology did not live up to the hoped-for standard.

For more information about the LEEP3 option, contact the:
Graduate School of Library and Information Science
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
501 East Daniel Street
Champaign, Illinois 61820

Marsha Woodbury is Chair of CPSR. She can be reached at; 217-244-4643;


Return to Table of Contents, Winter 1997 CPSR Newsletter

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