Online Students Don't Stand in Line

Last month's Digital Wire examined the upgrade of the technology infrastructure at the University of Dayton. This initiative, known as the Learning Village, starts with the concept that universities

Sep 28, 2000 at 2:06 pm

Last month's Digital Wire examined the upgrade of the technology infrastructure at the University of Dayton. This initiative, known as the Learning Village, starts with the concept that universities should not limit education to the classroom, but continuously immerse students in learning. To extend the school's resources into students' homes, UD has wired its campus with fiber-optic cables and requires all freshmen to purchase computers.

Even though the Learning Village is still under construction, faculty, administrators and students have begun to use it. Well-designed, with a clean, professional look and quick-loading pages, the university's Web site,, introduces potential students to academic and course information, financial-aid requirements and social aspects of college life. The site even incorporates a virtual tour featuring 360-degree views of five different spots on campus.

And if these Web pages have captured their interest, graduating high school seniors can apply for admission online. Although UD still requires paper copies of transcripts and test results, applicants can submit the remainder of their applications through the Web site. They can then track the progress of their submissions, receive automated e-mails about important deadlines and news and use a Web-based calculator to estimate the amount of financial aid they will need.

The popularity of UD's online application has ballooned since its inception in 1998.

For this academic year, 57 percent of the school's applications came in via the Web, up from 50 percent the prior year and 30 percent the first year. The Web site and online application process are opening new markets for UD. More than 1,300 Web applicants discovered UD through its Web site this year; and 160 of those, almost 10 percent of the incoming class, enrolled at the school.

UD's technology also bridges the anxious months leading up to the first day of class. Packets mailed to incoming freshmen in June contained the Web addresses and passwords to visit "virtual rooms." Designed to alleviate the anxiety of stepping into an unfamiliar world, these interactive Web pages allow incoming students to chat with roommates and other classmates before school begins. The pages also contain profiles of each incoming student, as well as such pragmatic information as reading lists and a checklist of items needed for campus life.

Technology is also refining tedious administrative procedures. Instead of filling out forms and standing in long lines, UD students register for classes over the Internet and instantaneously know if they have a seat in a particular class. Faculty advisors review students' selections and professors preview the composition of classes. Students can also reserve and renew library books, access grades and order transcripts online. And last February, instead of standing in line in a gymnasium to sign up for their favorite house, apartment or dormitory suite, students viewed floor plans and photos online and entered their selections into a housing lottery from the comfort of their own keyboard.

In the classroom, about 90 percent of UD's faculty use at least the basic tools of technology: communicating via e-mail with students, posting information and assignments on Web sites and discussing course material in threaded discussions, an electronic format similar to an Internet chat room.

"I am amazed at how responsive faculty have been to the technology," says Tom Skill, assistant provost for academic technology and director of the Learning Village. "Even the humanities departments are utilizing technology in very significant ways."

Since UD embraced technology, history students have discussed the Vietnam War online with veterans, physics students have charted the paths of hurricanes with data gathered over the Internet and biology students have supplemented class notes and textbooks with an online tutorial.

Some UD professors are eager to accelerate the relationship between education and technology. Biology and chemistry professors hope to eventually use streaming video and computerized monitoring equipment to supervise students' experiments. Foreign-language professors believe virtual reality and streaming media will immerse students in the cultures they are studying. And although slowed by copyright issues, librarians are eager to offer students in-home access to UD's extensive music collection by transferring works from record albums, cassettes and compact discs to streaming and downloadable formats.

Perhaps one of the most exciting technological learning tools at UD is groupware, software that facilitates group decision-making by equalizing participation. In most meetings, a few people dominate the discussion, creating an unyielding hierarchy that excludes less aggressive individuals. Even those capable of making their ideas heard may forget those ideas while waiting for another person to finish speaking. Groupware overcomes both of these communication roadblocks through anonymity and immediate input.

In a typical meeting at the Collaboratory, a research and service center located in UD's Ryan C. Harris Learning-Teaching Center, participants sit at tables that form a U-shape and face a large, mounted display screen. A teacher or facilitator stands in the middle, leading the discussion and encouraging input. Participants do not speak out, but anonymously enter ideas into computers in front of each of them. Much like an Internet chat room or bulletin board, the ideas entered are then visible to all participants. Ken Graetz, the director of the Collaboratory, believes this process results in both better meetings and better classes.

"Groupware allows for free and full input," Graetz says. "It reduces social anxiety so that the shy participate is on an equal footing with the powerful."

One groupware study by Graetz, an assistant professor of psychology, involved creating themes for television shows. Teams generated as many themes as possible, then selected the best and elaborated on them. The teams using groupware produced more ideas in the first step and generally ended up with better final ideas.

UD's students, faculty and administration are the Collaboratory's primary users, but for a fee, companies and off-campus groups may also utilize both the facility and its staff, who are trained to optimize the benefits of groupware.

With $200,000 in financial assistance from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Graetz and instructors Donald Polzella and Greg Elvers are moving groupware out of the Collaboratory and into the virtual classroom. In January 2001, two sections of Introductory Psychology, a class taken by more than half of UD's students, will be taught using groupware over the Internet. Students will meet in classrooms only a few times during the semester. They will download the course content from the Web, do reading and writing assignments and interact with other students and the instructor via discussion groups over the Internet.

Since each Introductory Psychology section averages more than 70 students, classroom settings offered few opportunities for students to interact with the professor or with each other. Graetz sees this class as ideally suited for the online environment. He describes the Internet-based class as "an opportunity to create an online learning environment that is actually richer than the traditional course, that solves some of the major problems encountered in the traditional course, and that allows students to learn faster and more actively than before."

Graetz, Polzella and Elvers are not merely pumping the same class through the Internet, but completely redesigning it.

"We are trying to design the course so that students can learn more efficiently in a way that's more suited to their own personal learning style," Skill says.

The university will then evaluate the success of this experiment by asking students to evaluate it and by comparing their performance to that of students taught in the traditional manner.

In addition to the Pew grant, UD received a $42,000 grant from the Ohio Learning Network (OLN), a statewide education agency funded by the Ohio Board of Regents, to develop a Web portal for science education. This portal will allow professors from various disciplines to share resources and collaborate.

UD, in conjunction with Dayton's Sinclair Community College, has also received two other grants from OLN. Through a joint project called the Institute for Enhanced Learning, UD and Sinclair will develop a series of courses to train teachers at all grade levels to effectively use technology in the classroom.

Although many such projects are just now beginning to utilize UD's impressive array of technology, Skill believes the Learning Village has already significantly impacted the university.

"We are winning important, competitive grants because of our technology," he says. "We are attracting and enrolling the students we want, and we are seeing results we only dreamed of getting. There are legitimate and valuable ways of incorporating technology into learning, and we are finding them across all fields."

Groups interested in utilizing the Collaboratory can contact Ken Graetz at 937-229-4604 or at [email protected]. More information on the facility is also available at