Online Education Is an Easy CELL


"We've been teaching science more or less in the same way since post World War II," exclaims Walter "Skip" Bollenbacher, professor of biology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who is looking at different ways to incorporate technology in the communication and education of science. With three main objectives in mind--to incorporate technology in teaching, to enhance postdoctoral training, and to bring minorities to the forefront of science education--Bollenbacher has created CELL (the Collaborative Electronic Learning Laboratory) to "bridge the void" between technology and education and improve science education in North Carolina.

"Technology is becoming the most important tool in science, in teaching, and in policy-making," asserts Bollenbacher, who is attempting to create an electronic network between UNC's Chapel Hill campus and North Carolina's minority universities. Exposing postdoctoral researchers to a broader range of skills, such as computer science and information technology, is another aim that CELL--which began in 1998 with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics--hopes to promote. "Postdocs often lack the social and professional skills needed to advance and develop their careers," so they become less marketable, says Bollenbacher. The wide range of interpersonal and problem-solving qualities instructors and students bring to the CELL initiative will help to complement their scientific training, he says.

The Minority Focus

"There is too much inequity" in terms of access to technology, research, and development, stresses Bollenbacher. Many "minority universities don't always have the funds to hire faculty to teach more specialized courses like immunology or neuroscience," concurs Jory Weintraub, a postdoctoral investigator within CELL. "Through CELL, we're hoping to provide that [educational] support," he says.

Weintraub--who is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation--is creating an undergraduate course in immunology that will be taught simultaneously at UNC Chapel Hill and at Fayetteville State University (FSU). A historically minority university situated in the south central region of North Carolina, FSU is roughly a 90-minute drive away from Chapel Hill. "My focus is to facilitate a sense of community" over that distance, says Weintraub. The course--which will debut next year--will be taught to about 30 students split evenly between the two campuses. And just as Weintraub expects to add significantly to his marketability by developing and teaching this course, so too does he hope that his students will "develop a high level of competency in information technology," as well as learn immunology.

Plastic Pens Help Bridge the Void

Weintraub has spent the last 6 to 8 months figuring out how to best implement streaming audio and video into his lesson plans--both technologies are vital to his initiative. "We're using SMART Boards, videoconferencing, and course delivery software at each location" to enhance the course, explains Weintraub. Students in the remote campus will see Weintraub on a television screen and will follow his class presentation as it appears on their own SMART Board.

The boards are similar to "extremely large palm pilots," describes Susanne Bockholt, a research associate also on the CELL team. Bockholt explains that two SMART Boards at different locations can be connected to each other such that any information presented on one appears on the other simultaneously. The students themselves can write comments on the boards using plastic pens--just like they would with chalk on a traditional chalkboard.

Bockholt, who joined the Chapel Hill-based group in May of last year, is using similar technologies to develop a course between Shaw University in Raleigh and North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in Durham that will also begin in January next year. "The plan is to have a synchronous class [in molecular cell biology] between the two sites," says Bockholt. But the difficulties and logistical problems involved in teaching this way can be "mind boggling" to new instructors, reveals Bockholt.

Technological Red Tape

Making sure classrooms are conducive for distance education, videoconferencing, and Internet surfing "wasn't something I had anticipated," reveals Bockholt. Ensuring a room is technology-friendly is a tough project: "You have to install hardware, Internet cables, and get good sound and video. You have to get in touch with phone companies and coordinate between the two universities. You have to work with technologists and outside vendors ... things don't happen as quickly as you think they will and there's a lot of red tape," elaborates Bockholt. For example, because she is establishing a course in campuses outside of UNC Chapel Hill, Bockholt has had difficulty getting UNC administrators to grant external students access to UNC facilities, including libraries.

Bockholt's course will be taught to roughly 20 students split between the two campuses. As in Weintraub's case, the relatively small class sizes help make Bockholt's initiative more "manageable." But making sure students in remote locations stay focused during class is another challenge that the CELL group may have to deal with, because it is unlikely that faculty-strapped universities will be able to devote personnel to simply supervise a class. Weintraub's remote students will be taking notes and watching the SMART Board and TV screen. In contrast, Bockholt's initiative--which also incorporates SMART Boards--also includes networked computers between Shaw University and NCCU, which she will use in her lessons to keep all students at each campus actively involved.

Education's Electronic Spinning Wheel

But despite the thin veil of apprehension that envelops ventures such as this, the CELL team reveals the scheme is being embraced by all. "It's a first," says Eugene Baskerville, associate professor in biology at Shaw University, of the technological spin education has taken in that part of North Carolina. "It's a very new concept and learning tool, and it's very exciting in terms of a pioneering activity," he says, adding that "in the long run [distance education] will provide relief time for faculty" by lightening their teaching loads and allowing them to spend more time on other "badly needed" activities--like proposal writing. If successful, programs like CELL "will certainly broaden the kind of subjects we can offer our students," says Valeria Flemming, professor of biology at FSU.

As exciting as virtual ventures like this can be, aspects of traditional classroom teaching will still be evident: Both Weintraub and Bockholt will travel to their respective campuses to deliver lectures. The plan is for Weintraub, for example, to split his time between FSU and UNC Chapel Hill and teach immunology at each campus on alternative Tuesdays and Thursdays. "This allows both groups to get equal access to instructors" and ensures that the remote students at FSU feel they are integral to the course, he says.

Affordable Electronic Education

"Our first goal is to develop the technology, and our second goal is to make sure we are cost-effective," says Bollenbacher, who reckons the set up cost between any two locations is roughly $25,000 per site. The cost isn't inhibitory and shows "you don't have to be a huge institution to do distance education," adds Weintraub.

"Technology is evolving so fast that the cost of financing distancing education is going to go down," predicts Bollenbacher, who is convinced that now is the time to begin investing in distance education initiatives that will "drive the diffusion of technology innovations." He cautions interested parties to begin establishing infrastructures as soon as they can ... otherwise it may be too late to jump onto the distance education band(width) wagon.

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