A Virtual University Experience

by J.A. Hitchcock
As seen in the July/August 1999 issue of Link-UP

For over 20 years, UMUC (University of Maryland University College) has offered Distance Learning programs for its students. In 1980, they established the IUC (International University Consortium) to promote the idea of distance education. The IUC helps members of more than 50 colleges, universities and educational agencies develop and deliver higher education curricula and programs to adult learners. Over the years, UMUC's Distance Learning program has changed - it began with UNIX/shell systems, incorporated voice mail technology in 1990 and online conferencing in the fall of 1991, then graduated to Windows-based systems and currently uses a program called WebTycho, which makes Distance Learning a true virtual university.

Tycho is named after Tycho Brahae, a Danish astronomer and relates to the global aspect of UMUC's programs (extension campuses are located worldwide). UMUC began to develop this conferencing capability in 1989-1990 after conducting a search of existing conferencing software and finding nothing that satisfied their requirements. It began as totally text-based, (Tycho), moved to Windows-based (WinTycho) and then went to a totally Web-based version (WebTycho). It works in conjunction with a web browser to

WebTycho is accessed via the web at http://tychousa.umuc.edu and provides an interactive classroom experience to over 4,000 UMUC students around the United States and the world. A truly innovative tool to facilitate learning without the limitations of time and place, WebTycho brings together faculty, students and administrators in one place, no matter where they're physically located.

Basically, instructors place their syllabus on-line, students check in at appropriate times to access lecture materials, figures, charts, and other things to supplement the required textbook, turn in assignments, take exams and even take part in a virtual lecture (more on that in a moment). Questions can be emailed to the instructor and students can create or add to discussions pertinent to their course.

Although virtual courses cost the same as a traditional one, students may find they save money on babysitting, commuting, tolls, and gas, especially if they're with an ISP (Internet Service Provider) on a flat monthly rate.

A new addition officially starting this fall is the use of guest lecturers in the on-line courses. Faculty can arrange for a guest lecturer, the same way they would regularly do, except the execution of the lecture itself. Whereas it may be hard to book a lecturer from out of state or out of the USA, a virtual guest lecturer can be located anywhere in the world.

I had the opportunity to become the first guest lecturer, a kind of trial run, to see how it would work and if it would work. A week prior to the lecture, Art Huseonica, UMUC's Computer Applications Department Director, emailed me with a guest login and password and the URL, he explained that he would start the "lecture" with a topic and I would write my opening statement. The lecture would last a week, allowing students time to respond and/or ask me questions, and for me to reply. Since this was an extra credit, we weren't sure what to expect as far as attendance.

I went to the WebTycho site, logged in, and went directly to the course, CAPP 386 (Internet: An Advanced Guide). I clicked on the announcement of my guest lecture "appearance" - I would be speaking about Personal Web Security Issues. Huseonica had already created two topics and I clicked on the first, "Personal Security Info on Your Web Site," to read his introductory remarks. I then clicked on "Respond" and wrote my opening statement (I've included the first few bits here):

"How Much Personal Information Should You Put On Your Web Site?
First, ask yourself these questions:
Do you want someone to call you at home or at your business? 
Do you want someone to stop by your house or business? At midnight?
This may sound farfetched, but it could happen if you decide to put your home and/or business
phone number, home/business address or other personal information
about you and your family on your web site.
Would you give this kind of information to someone you just met on the street or in a store?
They're strangers to you and so are the people who populate the web.
What you wouldn't do in your offline life, DON'T do in your online life.
So, what information should you put up?"

I went to the second topic, "Web Resources Relative to the Conference" and wrote the rest of my lecture, a recounting of my online harassment experience, how I dealt with it and a list of helpful web sites for students to visit.

Six students responded to both topics with thoughtful insights and wonderful questions. It truly was almost like being there - instead of debating or answering questions in person, it was done online, and it was just as spirited. I found WebTycho very easy to use - and especially liked the fact that I didn't have to install any software to take part in this new venture.

"I like being able to receive lectures from guest speakers who can add value to a lesson plan," comments Janice Lazinski, one of the students who took part in the lecture. "I do prefer classroom lectures, but under certain circumstances it is beneficial to have virtual lecturers if you or the lecturer are remotely located from a campus."

With the success of this initial virtual lecture and the popularity of virtual courses rising, Huseonica feels potential students will appreciate the benefits: Flexibility to achieve a balance between work, family, professional and personal development; nothing is missed due to illness or work commitments; and students can do their course work whenever and wherever they want, even while on vacation!

Inez Giles, UMUC's Director of Distance Education Technologies, agrees. "I truly believe there is a depth and insight to student's responses we don't see in traditional classrooms."

More virtual courses are being added and now UMUC students can get their Bachelor's or Master's Degree online - this summer alone there are 126 undergraduate courses and 25 graduate courses - and UMUC has seen a 400% jump in enrollments.

Does Huseonica see universities and colleges switching to virtual courses as a major part of their curriculum?

"I think everyone will jump on the bandwagon," he muses. "It takes a special commitment of personnel and other resources. It's a new way of thinking about or approaching education that some institutions of higher learning are sometimes slow to take on."

Giles agrees, " I believe virtual courses are filling a niche in the market with respect to the educational needs of working adults. Our adult students face the constraints of family (supporting their own children as well as their aging parents), jobs (downsizing pressures or negotiating promotions), and classwork. Sometimes I don't know how they do it - and do it so well!"

Is virtual learning for everyone?
Some students like traditional courses and feel they can work better away from home.

"It was easier for me to ‘get away' from home to do three classroom hours rather than do them at home where there are potential interruptions," Lazinski claims.

Others find that virtual courses are the answer - especially if they have busy schedules and can't fit a traditional course into their schedule; a virtual course allows them to take a course or two when they have available time.

"There is some wonderful work being conducted in virtual reality and learning environments that I believe will revolutionize the way we learn," Giles says.

And she is right.