Mobile Computing | Feature

How to Earn a Graduate Degree on a Smartphone

With the help of a smartphone or tablet, graduate engineering students at USC can access live streaming lectures, and interact with their lecturer and fellow students.

A part-time graduate engineering student sits at his gate at Los Angeles International Airport, awaiting his flight. He gets out his smartphone, checks the time, clicks on a link, logs on, and within seconds he’s watching and participating in a live lecture at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering.

Distance education? Yes, and then some. The Distance Education Network at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering--now called DEN@Viterbi--has been around for more than four decades, but this year’s version is state-of-the-art and definitely mobile friendly.

In the wake of a massive tech overhaul, students can not only stream their lectures in real time, but also participate in classroom discussion by phone, live chat, or VOIP. The newly upgraded classroom suites have custom audio-video integration, with cameras directed at both the instructor and the students, and ceiling microphones that pick up in-class responses and enable discussion between online and on-campus students.

"With this blended format, our graduate engineering students have the same classroom experience and the same faculty--mostly full-time, tenure-track--whether they’re on campus or online," said Binh Tran, executive director of USC’s DEN@Viterbi, which is powered by Blackboard.

DEN@Viterbi currently offers more than 40 online engineering graduate programs and professional courses. "We have more than 4,000 graduate engineering students," explained Tran. "Of those, close to 1,000 are online students," with the majority part-time, averaging 1.5 classes per semester.

The school's sizeable investment in technology has obviously paid off. This year, DEN@Viterbi is ranked as the top online engineering program in the country by U.S. News & World Report, which also ranked USC as one of the top 10 graduate engineering programs.

While the primary goal of the DEN@Viterbi makeover is to make its online education offering as effective as face-to-face, the school has also put tremendous emphasis in optimizing its system for mobile devices.

"I watch all my DEN@Viterbi lectures on my iPhone," said Sapphire Lopez, who is studying for a master's degree in chemical engineering and materials science. "It’s very easy and convenient. I like that I can watch lectures anywhere and don't have to pull out my laptop."

The average class size is 44, with most classes accommodating a maximum of 10 to 20 online students. These students might be on assignment in another country, or they might be at home with the kids. "They’re very mobile," emphasized Tran, "and we make sure that the technology supports that mobility with interactive tools." The course management system, for example, is accessible via mobile and tablet browsers, along with digitized notes and various course tools.

"Mobile access is important, but the ability to access information at a distance is transformational," said Gaurav Sukhatme, professor and chairman of the USC Computer Science Department. "The fact that geography doesn’t impose constraints on education is transformational. The fact that you don’t have to uproot your life in order to finish your education is transformational. The mobile device provides added flexibility, and is important in that regard."

To give its students maximum flexibility and make the online learning experience as valuable as possible, the school provides faculty with extensive tech support—a dedicated operator monitors up to 13 classes from a central control room—and a range of technology options. Professors have at their disposal computers, writing pads, electronic boards, and tablets. Wearing a clip-on microphone so they can walk or sit, instructors can use voiceover as a camera zooms in on formulas or notes; use a blackboard or whiteboard; write on paper; or speak and look directly at the camera. "This is a healthy diversity of teaching styles, all of which are embraced," said Sukhatme.

Most of the 130 classes held each semester are highly interactive, with WebEx and phone conferencing enabling online students to be seen and heard in the classroom. The instructor or room moderator can also pass control to online participants for remote presentation sharing. For student group meetings, there is a link for an interactive group URL, which sends students into a virtual meeting room, with the ability to use video conferencing, desktop sharing, and chat.

To avoid disturbing their classmates, those students participating via mobile device must follow some basic guidelines. For instance, they must keep their phones on mute unless they are asking or answering a question. Sukhatme, who has been teaching classes with mobile access for about three years, believes that "remote students are good about this." As a result, he says, he is generally not aware of where students are located, whether at work, an airport, offshore, or in a combat zone.

Asynchronous Options
Because many USC engineering students are out-of-state or abroad—the school has students from 20 different countries—scheduling can be a problem. "We have a lot of global partners," said Tran. "We work with international corporations, such as Kuwait Oil Company, with engineers taking masters and completing Ph.D. programs."

To accommodate different time zones, bandwidth limitations, and student schedules, DEN@Viterbi does not require students to attend lectures live, if it's not feasible. Instead, it provides a variety of options for downloading and streaming materials. Some students might use audio only; others might download the recorded lecture, which is available 15 minutes after class for mobile devices and tablets. "Those in petroleum engineering, working offshore, or in the military might have internet access once or twice a week," explained Tran. "Our program allows them to stay up to date.”

The way students use mobile devices to attend lectures and complete their coursework varies widely, although it does require a certain amount of discipline on the students' part. "On-campus students use mobile devices to review material," said Sukhatme. "Truly remote students often do everything on their remote devices. In either case, it works quite well for engineering. The challenge with mobile devices is time management. The student has to discard other cognitive load and pay attention to the lecture. Also, reviewing and relearning can be a challenge."

"With a live interactive component in all classes, there are always challenges as to how we manage the applications," concluded Tran. "But, on the plus side, the faculty has access to professional students with real-life experience, and the technology keeps the students engaged. The mobile infrastructure enables student success."

About the Author

Toni Fuhrman is a writer and creative consultant based in Los Angeles.

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