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Updated 9:00 AM September 7, 2009

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Distance-learning program grows at SPH

It's nearly 2 a.m. in Japan, time for Tatiana Baranovich to switch on her laptop and join classmates 5,000 miles away for a 1 p.m. Fundamentals of Epidemiology class in Room 2610 in the School of Public Health (SPH) I building.
Vic Divecha, eLearning specialist with the School of Public Health, helps coordinate classroom video and audio feeds to distance learners in an epidemiology class. (Photo by Scott Soderberg/U-M Photo Services)

The graduate student is among 14 other so-called distance-learners, who join 10 on-site classmates to watch and listen to adjunct lecturer Jennifer Beebe-Dimmer for a three-week, accelerated course offered as part of the Graduate Summer Session in epidemiology. Beebe-Dimmer is outfitted with a lavalier microphone and captured on video cameras, lecturing and leading the class discussion before two oversized, flat-screen video monitors showing outlined course material.

Using the experience gained through a one-course pilot program in 2006, the Graduate Summer Session's pioneering distance-learning program has expanded, with 26 distance students now participating in two classes.

Besides Baranovich in Japan, a student attends from the Federated States of Micronesia, and several Canadian and out-of-state U.S. students join on-site classmates.

"The planning committee of the Graduate Summer Session discussed the importance of making this type of learning available to potential participants," says Jody Gray, the program's administrator in the Department of Epidemiology, on the impetus for distance learning. "They realize that this will make the program more marketable and remain competitive, as we reach out to those who are not able to travel. We have had eLearning students from as far as Turkey and as close as Detroit."

Vic Divecha, eLearning specialist, says the SPH's comprehensive distance-learning approach was designed from scratch. "The key thing is to have long-distance students understand the hardware requirements," he says. "They don't have to be expert computer users, they need basic computer and Internet skills to succeed."

During the pilot program, Divecha says, "We found that people did not orient themselves and this tied up support staff fighting fires rather than supporting learning." Now, students are provided information on required browsers, hard drives, Internet connections, software and a specified scanner type to support creation of multi-page PDFs.

Staff members make appointments with distance students before the course starts, to test their computer capabilities. "We want them to be comfortably boarded so they're completely comfortable while the train has left the station," Divecha says.

During the class sessions, a producer works from a glass-front control room, switching among three cameras and three microphones positioned to capture lecturers, students and graduate student instructors (GSIs). Material shown to in-class students on the classroom projection screens is transmitted to the computer screens of distance students.

Seated just outside Divecha's booth, GSI Jennifer Knapp faces Beebe-Dimmer. She pays rapt attention to the lecture while keeping an eye out for questions that scroll along the bottom of her laptop from distance students.

"I mistakenly attached the wrong homework section," one student writes. "That's fine," Knapp types back, then explains the correct way.

After nearly completing a section on the nature of clinical trials and field trials, Beebe-Dimmer calls out, "The distance-learning folks, everybody's good?" She'll repeat that query every 10-15 minutes or so.

"The greatest challenge is probably ensuring that the questions and concerns of the distance-learners are adequately addressed in real-time without disrupting the flow of the lecture for students participating in class," Beebe-Dimmer says.

Knapp interrupts the lecturer's presentation on the concept of population-attributable risk. "We just have a quick question about the formula," the GSI announces. "They're saying the multiplier is not in the denominator."

Beebe-Dimmer turns and reviews the equation she has written on the board. "That's correct," she says, before moving parentheses to include the multiplier.

The epidemiology Graduate Summer Session planners say the aim is to have off-site students participate as thoroughly and seamlessly as possible with students physically in the classroom. "When the class breaks into groups to discuss articles, it allows the distance learners to have a parallel group discussion in the chat option of the distance-learning module," Knapp says.

Gray says the goal is to keep expanding the program. While she identifies potential server/software difficulty as the biggest potential challenge, "This has been minimal over the last three years of doing this and has yet to affect the continuity of the courses," she says.

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