The latest information technologies are bringing together students from Texas' two largest universities in an innovative genetics course that explores the frontiers of DNA research as well as the frontiers of new ways of learning.
Longhorns, Aggies unite for on-line learning
The course, an introduction to genetics for juniors and seniors, is being taught jointly this fall by professors from UT Austin and Texas A&M University.
They are using interactive videoconferences, computer animation, instruction on the World Wide Web, electronic discussion groups, and study groups involving students from both campuses. The classes originate from alternate sites, with 24 students enrolled at A&M and 23 at UT Austin.
"We are learning vast amounts about distance education from teaching this course," said Dr. Richard H. Richardson, professor of zoology at UT Austin, who is teaching the course with his colleague and long-time friend at Texas A&M, Dr. John R. Ellison.
"We both have had some experience with distance education in the past, but we were never satisfied with it," Richardson said. "With this class, we are finding that it is possible to conduct a course using this technology, and it is clear that the limitations of the technology are rapidly being diminished."
The genetics class is an example of a type of instruction that UT System administrators expect to become more and more common. Supported by an allocation of $3.4 million for the current academic year, the System has begun a broad expansion of distance education and other uses of telecommunications and information technologies.
Richardson also is teaching a traditional section of the genetics course this semester, and he says comparisons between the two modes of teaching have been of interest. "We are covering more genetics in the distance education course," he said. "The students are gaining a greater level of detail."
At universities across the country where the use of information technologies is a growing trend, there have been some concerns that the development of "virtual universities" may threaten the sense of community and personal interaction found on traditional college campuses. But the genetics course being taught this semester at UT and A&M offers some encouragement about how well students can adapt to the new technologies and still maintain traditional values.
"A strong synergy has developed between the students at the two campuses," Richardson said. "We have actually found that students in this course are initiating more direct contact with one another.
"Some of them have driven back and forth between the campuses to visit the class from the other end. It seems the technology is enhancing personal interaction among the students." (Austin and College Station are 100 miles apart.)
One downside of the current technology is that it does not permit the same ease of participation in class discussions, since students must move to one of two microphones to speak, Richardson said.
"Some of the students are extremely mike shy, but every class has a few students who are not shy, and the others are listening," he said.
Preparation for the course also has been more time-consuming for the two professors, but that is partly a result of the fact that they are helping to pioneer the use of the technology and have had to develop their course materials as they go.
"We meet every Friday and story-board the next two classes," he said. "We make PowerPoint slides for the lectures, including photos and animation. Our presentations have been highly orchestrated from the beginning. This has taken a lot of time because, in a sense, we are pushing the envelope of the technology."
Overall, the results so far have been positive, he said. "Both of us have been teaching for 25 years, and we came in as skeptics about whether you could maintain the same quality of education using these technologies.
"We have been determined to see if that is possible, and we now believe that it is when given adequate time and support for cutting-edge technology."