UW-Fox goes the distance with online education options

Home instructors use the distance education room control panel to place video conferences with classes on other campuses. · photo by Debra Ruff

In the age of technology, distance learning courses at UW-Fox offer students a chance to take courses they may not otherwise have an opportunity to attend due to low enrollment or limited availability on certain campuses of professors to teach these courses.

Dee Dewitt, senior lecturer of mathematics, teaches two distance learning classes per year at UW-Fox.

“I am glad to be able to teach these courses because, otherwise, students may not have an opportunity to take them. They help students get essential credits needed towards a four-year degree at other colleges, instead of just the general education courses offered here [at UW-Fox],” Dewitt said.

Distance learning courses work by accessing “the bridge,” which is based at UW-Madison. Students have access to microphones for communication with other campuses as well as video capability for interaction between students and as professor interaction with students at other campuses. Professors have a separate screen, which takes the place of a whiteboard in a face-to-face course that they can utilize for PowerPoint presentations or supplement other learning aids, such as videos or worksheets.

Room 1847, one of the four distance learning classrooms on campus, contains video and audio equipment allowing for student-to-professor interaction. · photo by Debra Ruff

There are two types of distance learning, asynchronous and synchronous learning, Senior Administrative Program Specialist Evelyn Li explains. There are differences between the two, depending on what the student is looking for in their educational experience. Async learning is online, and is off campus, and can be done in a student’s free time. Students have access to assignments and professors according to their personal schedules, which can be beneficial if a student has a family to care for or career obligations which may not permit attendance on campus during traditional school hours.

“Students are free to do other things and can work at their own pace, which is great for those who want to get an education but may not be able to commit to classes on campus,” Li said.

However, the async learning environment is not for everyone. Davis Knutzen, a sophomore at UW-Fox who is currently taking a sync distance learning class, suspects he would be one such person not suited for online coursework.

“I do not feel online learning would be effective for me, because I need the interaction with the instructor. We are the home campus, so the instructor is always available to us here [at UW-Fox.] I am not sure how it would be for me if I were not at the home campus,” Knutzen said.

Sync learning is done on campus and happens in a structured setting where students have real-time interaction with their instructor as well as other students. This type of setting is preferable to some, since there is more connection to the other students in the course, as well as the professor, which can complement certain students learning styles.

Often distance learning classes are between two campuses, known as point-to-point classes, although there are some offered on campus in which multiple UW classrooms are connected. In either case, there can be disadvantages to these classes because of the very element that makes them possible for students at various campuses: technology. There are times when equipment does not function properly, which can delay class, and make learning and teaching one of these courses difficult at times.

“There are many problems the professor has to deal with in these classes, and time is wasted because of technical problems. The instructor has to find someone to fix these issues, and if another campus is having problems, it may be difficult to communicate this with the professor,” Marita Guttierez, a UW-Fox sophomore who took a distance learning course last semester, said.

Sometimes it is difficult for professors to know who to call if they are not at their home campus.

“I travel to UW-Fond du Lac to teach one of my math classes each semester, so I can interact personally with the students over there, but it is challenging if there are technical difficulties because I am not sure who to contact since I am not as familiar with that campus,” Dewitt said.

The Academic Technology Support Team (ATS) handles all problems due to video equipment failure or breakdown. Formerly known as the IT team, this department works to ensure students and professors have the best experience possible in distance learning classrooms.

Currently, this department maintains four video learning classrooms. UW-Fox began with two distance learning classrooms and has expanded by two since 1998, when Li began her position with UW-Fox. While she does not think these type of classes will take the place of face-to-face classes altogether, she does see room for expansion within these courses, especially with point-to-point classrooms.

“Right now there are two to three of these types of classrooms per semester, but I would think there could be as many as five or more in the future. However, UW-Fox has a very stabilized curriculum, so I feel many students will continue face-to-face classes on campus,” Li says.

There is a $15 per credit fee for sync and async distance learning classes added to tuition for system upkeep.