By Tonya Oaks Smith
In UALR’s Engineering, Technology, and Applied Science building, a group of students gather for their weekly information quality classes.
At the same time in Brazil, Marcelo Silva joins in the same seminar from his hometown of Brasilia. He’s half a world away, but technology extends the opportunity to engage in the only Master of Science in Information Quality program offered in the United States to a whole new group of students.
Throughout the U.S., education administrators, business executives, and government leaders have recognized the growing trend of providing educational opportunities online. To add to this international connectivity, libraries at universities such as Colorado State University offer Internet access to their archives and special collections like the Dot Carpenter Virtual Exhibit. Members of the Internet2 Network —which includes UALR — focus on developing and deploying networking technology to further research and educational goals.
“For higher education, globalization implies the broad social, economic, and technological forces that shape the reality of the 21st century,” wrote Philip G. Altbach, higher education professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, in a recent analysis. “These elements include advanced information technology, …unprecedented mobility for students and professors, the global spread of common ideas about science and scholarship, the role of English as the main international language of science, and other developments.”
Geographic proximity once restricted higher education to those privileged students who could go away to college. Now, universities throughout the world offer web-based programs with little or no on-campus class work required. Technology — specifically high-speed connections to the Internet — provides the framework for Silva and other remote students to engage in online or blended-delivery courses. It also enables community colleges in Arkansas to offer classes in higher-level mathematics or sciences by tapping into university resources.
Sharon Downs, associate director of UALR’s Disability Resource Center, said advances in technology pose both challenges and opportunities for students with disabilities.
“For students with mobility problems, online classes can be a godsend, but they can put up barriers for others,” Downs said. “We try to work with our faculty to employ principles of universal design, where they begin designing coursework with a focus on making it accessible for everyone.”
Downs has seen a tremendous jump recently in the number of students with disabilities who pursue online classes at UALR, which offers more online courses and programs than any other public university in the state — 243 with 325 class options. These students from all over the country have a choice, she added, and they are choosing UALR because of the University’s long-standing dedication to accessibility.
The University has worked hard, she added, to stress this principle for faculty and staff. All websites must meet accessibility requirements for screen reading software, and certain classrooms throughout campus are equipped with technology such as Typewell, a speech-to-text software used for deaf and hearing-impaired students.
“The software program enables students to see on their laptops what’s being said in class,” Downs said. “A transcriber who has been trained in this program sits in the lecture, and his or her notes are transmitted wirelessly to the student’s laptop.”
The issue of accessibility extends beyond the classroom to helping students and professors find access to research and scholarship from all areas of the world.
In the November 2005 general election, Arkansans voted to help public universities in the state join the National LambdaRail, a high-speed national computer network that runs over fiber-optic lines. This major initiative of U.S. research universities and private sector technology companies provides the infrastructure to advance research and experimentation in networking technologies and applications.
And a majority of Arkansas’ public higher education institutions are members of the Southern Regional Education Board’s Electronic Campus, a comprehensive website for information about post-secondary opportunities — traditional campus study or e-learning — in the South.
New technology also enables professors to work with colleagues in other countries to conduct collaborative research. Professor Rolf Wigand, UALR’s Maulden-Entergy Chair and Distinguished Professor of Information Science and Management, explores information science issues with contemporaries in New York, Pennsylvania, Germany, and The Netherlands. He finds the work less cumbersome than collaborative research of the past.
“The problem was always having a live discussion about pertinent issues,” Wigand said. “It used to be incredibly cumbersome, but now we have Skype (software to communicate with others through free voice, video calls, and instant messages), e-mail and various other means to stay in touch. It’s completely changed how we do things.”
UALR’s Master of Science in Information Quality program links students in four countries and four American states with a singular course offering that is matched only at the University of Westminster in London. To create the program, UALR professors worked with experts in data management from Arkansas’ business community and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From its earliest inception, the degree program was intended to be offered to remote students.
“Our blend of in-class lectures and the online technology works well for our students, many of whom are working full time and pursuing an advanced degree to help their careers,” said Dr. John Talburt, program director. “We schedule courses in the evenings one day a week, deliver the lecture live, and simultaneously webcast it with Wimba (a collaborative learning software application). The two-way audio allows students in remote locations to participate in conversations with other students.”
Silva is a data administrator with Brazil’s Central Bank, the equivalent of the Federal Reserve Bank in the United States. Eventually, he would like to complete his doctorate in information quality in UALR’s new Ph.D. program and apply his new knowledge to business in his home country or the U.S.
“I join live all the classes I can,” Silva said. “Only two or three times I had problems getting the live classes, but then I managed to get the recorded lectures.”
For students who are unable to attend class at the same time as those in the United States’ Central time, the lectures are recorded and can be played back at any time. This way of approaching the course is closer to what Talburt calls a “traditional web-based course” that allows students to progress at their own rate.
While Silva enjoys engaging in coursework via the Internet, he sees a challenge resulting from not physically being in the same classroom as his colleagues.
“I imagine it is much easier for (students in class) to get their doubts solved with professors,” Silva added. “A good thing about being on the computer during a class is being able to ask questions at the time the professor is speaking. I imagine it can be quite annoying to the professor, but at least I can ask a lot of questions. I am very curious!”
Another challenge involved in offering classes via the Internet is finding suitable test monitors in students’ home areas several times each semester. Professors in any area of study face opportunities and challenges when they teach online courses.
“The first time I taught a class in electronic commerce, I had 35 students online from nine different countries, including the (chief information officer) of the USS Enterprise, floating somewhere in the world on that ship,” said Wigand. “It becomes a much more discussion-based course. I posted our discussion points ahead of time, and we had an agreed-upon meeting time. The negative thing for me was that students thought I was always available — no matter which time zone I was in.”