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in this issue...
IT Revamps Divisional Web Site

Making the Web Accessible to All

"Distributed Learning": LEADing the Campus into the Future

LEAD Faculty Survey Results

Campus Wrapping Up Y2K Preparedness

Tiger Team Wants You!

Preparing for Y2K at Home

Degree Navigator: Registrar and IT Create Powerful New Tool for Students

Measuring the Effectiveness of IT's Communications

Windows 2000: A Review

Evaluating the Deployment of New Technology

Tapping Internet 2's Potential

Main Computer Networks Accessible to UC Davis Users

Bits and Bytes: Short News Items

Modem Pool Users Getting Busy Signals

Volume 7, Number 6
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"Distributed Learning":
LEADing the Campus into the Future

by Donna Justice

Of all the challenges UC Davis faces in the next decade, first and foremost is the need to accommodate a diverse and ever-growing student population. How can the campus meet the physical and academic demands that lie ahead? More importantly, how can we help students and faculty to create a richer, more collaborative learning environment in the face of those challenges?

One solution that many leading universities are exploring is "distributed learning." Distributed learning is not merely a fancy new way of describing computer-assisted instruction. Rather, it is a new paradigm that holds the potential to revolutionize the way in which students and faculty interact on modern university campuses.

In a distributed learning environment, the need to create a physical space for instruction (classroom) at a specific time (10 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday) is alleviated. In the new paradigm, a "class" could be held at any time, from any location, and include any number of instructors and students. For instance, a professor could conduct a class in real time with a group of students in various locations (e.g., study hall, dorm, or coffee shop) through the use of the latest distributed learning technologies (i.e., cutting-edge software and hardware that enable multiple users to work from virtually any location, using any kind of computer). Ultimately, distributed learning will augment traditional classroom learning to maximize the potential of the University and the students. Any network that supports this type of instruction must facilitate communication and efficient document-sharing across platforms using different operating systems (Windows, UNIX, Macs, etc.), software applications, and network connections.

photo of Linda MorrisLast fall, as a first step toward establishing a plan for distributed learning, the Division of Information Technology (IT) initiated the Learning Environment Architecture Development (LEAD) Project. Working with a cross-section of the campus community, LEAD is exploring the opportunities to make distributed learning a reality on this campus. LEAD is sponsored by the Academic Computing Coordinating Council (AC4) and is, in part, a response to the recommendations for improving UC Davis' academic infrastructure made in IT's Five-Year Administrative Unit Review (April 1999).

"To implement the necessary infrastructure of a distributed learning environment, we need to first have an understanding of the alternative technologies involved," says Vicki Suter, IT-Distributed Computing Analysis and Support and LEAD Project Manager. "Through close monitoring of what the market and comparable institutions are doing and have done (especially early adopters), we are beginning to identify what it would take to build a distributed learning network here."

An important part of LEAD's assessment process is to identify the unique needs and technical abilities of UC Davis staff, faculty, and students. "Before UC Davis can build a distributed learning network, we need to know where to invest," says Suter. "Infrastructure is expensive, so we don't want to invest in the wrong infrastructure or in an infrastructure that doesn't meet the critical needs of the campus."

But any infrastructure needs to be built in accordance to a set of standards. And the standards needed to govern a functional distributed learning network don't yet exist. In fact, this lack of common standards is one of the biggest challenges faced by any university interested in building its own distributed learning network. To address this challenge, UC Davis participates in national efforts led by EDUCAUSE, an international nonprofit organization committed to facilitating the convergence of technology and instruction.

In 1997, EDUCAUSE initiated the Instructional Management Systems (IMS) Cooperative (made up of sponsoring organizations including UC Davis, other universities, hardware and software manufacturers, nonprofit and commercial institutions). The goal of the IMS project is to identify the standards needed to build a global system for distributed learning -- an "Internet architecture for learning." To understand the importance of this work, we can compare it to the way an architect and a builder go about constructing a home. The architect creates a blueprint which the building contractor follows to build the house. Both experts rely upon a set of standards and codes governing the building of all homes within a given area. Eventually, the standards identified by IMS could be the "technical glue" applied to a global network of distributed learning.

So how do we get from here to there?
The first steps have already been taken. After one year, the LEAD team has met its goals for the first phase of the project:

  • Assess new software applications, communications and networking technologies which should be considered for use at UC Davis.
  • Inform the campus about these and related technologies. The LEAD team, along with the Teaching Resources Center and Arbor staff, have given monthly workshops aimed primarily at faculty on issues related to distributed learning (see for details). In addition, the LEAD team has surveyed and interviewed hundreds of staff, faculty, and students to assess current uses of technology for learning and teaching (see sidebar: "LEAD Faculty Survey Results").
  • Assist in the development of a campuswide distributed learning infrastructure and framework that can support diverse learning styles.
  • Identify critical issues, such as security, privacy, and copyright considerations and recommend solutions that can be applied campuswide.

Sponsoring two "think tank" meetings is one of the most valuable activities the LEAD team has conducted, according to Suter. The first was held in May. Visitors from Arizona State University, UC Berkeley, and Buena Vista University consulted with LEAD team members and other campus representatives about some of the challenges of creating a technical infrastructure for distributed learning at UC Davis. The second, focusing on recommendations for implementing distributed learning at UC Davis, was held on November 1719.

Through these discussions and careful monitoring of what other universities ("early adopters" of distributed learning, such as UC Berkeley, MIT, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Carnegie Mellon, and Indiana University) are doing, the LEAD team has learned a great deal about how UC Davis measures up.

"UC Davis is not, nor does it aspire to be, an early adopter in most areas of instructional technology infrastructure," says Suter. "We try to maintain a position with the 'early majority.' UC Davis is a little ahead of the rest of the early majority in terms of its directory infrastructure (which conforms best practices as they are currently being defined, even though its foundations were built several years ago), networking infrastructure, and authentication/security.

"UC Davis is trailing in the use of distributed file systems and interactive communication and collaboration tools, although individual faculty have actually done some early and substantive work in this last arena," says Suter.

Next Steps
In late December, the LEAD team will submit a final report to the AC4 and John Bruno, Vice Provost for Information and Educational Technology. The report will outline the team's findings and recommendations. Once the next steps are agreed upon, an implementation plan will be drafted and grants will be sought to support the next two to three years of implementation.

"If we gain a good understanding of needs, and test, prototype, pilot and implement the necessary infrastructures in a timely way," says Suter, "they can support a pretty wide range of solutions -- from offering online sessions to providing virtual labs (to supplement physical labs) and developing distance offerings for particular markets in which UC Davis has unique resources and strengths."

But, of course, even when the infrastructure and tools are in place to make distributed learning a reality at UC Davis, the campus will still face many challenges. Not the least of which are the issues of training and maintenance. Some distributed learning tools (e.g., special software, Web sites, and databases) come with a fairly high learning curve. The need for training and supporting professors in their efforts to use and maintain those tools will be assessed more carefully. The LEAD team's report will highlight some of those challenges and make some preliminary recommendations.

Distributed learning, though never intended to replace traditional classroom instruction, could increase the opportunities for all students at UC Davis (particularly returning or part-time students) to collaborate more fully in the creation of knowledge. At the same time, we could reach more of the vast and diverse number of the 60,000 full-time equivalent students predicted to enter the UC system in the next ten years.