Kennesaw State University: Distance Learning as a Cost-Effective Measure

When Lisa Manning, director of instructional technology at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta, implemented her most recent distance-learning platform, the first thing she noticed wasn't the performance, but the cost. When the cast:stream system from 21st Century Media was implemented at the state university at the beginning of the fall semester in August, the difference in cost between it and other distance learning platforms was exponential.

She didn't understand why anyone would want to spend as much as $40,000 when there were options available that cost less than half that amount.

Budget Cuts
It wasn't merely a matter of bargain hunting or comparison shopping for the instructional technology director.

A recent joint Congressional report issued by a caucus of Democratic House and Senate leaders indicates that the Federal budget has cut an estimated $5.5 billion from education funding over the last two years, according to figures gathered from Congressional Budget Office data. That same data indicates that Pell Grants, at an average of $3,900, are $300 below the pace of inflation, and that the combined Federal and state education cutbacks have added an average of $6,000 more to individual student debt load. Taking partisan politics out of the equation, it's clear a recessionary economy that has reduced tax receipts across the board is being mirrored in equally comprehensive educational budget cuts. This is why Lisa Manning's attention was grabbed as much by the cost-effectiveness of a distance learning platform as by its educational effectiveness.

Comprehensive Learning
More cost-effective distance learning platforms, like cast:stream, which was implemented at Kennesaw State's new M.S. program in Applied Science, help offset these funding reductions. At the same time, they're providing a more comprehensive learning experience. "At first, there was the perception that technology-based learning was only for the rich," Manning says. "Fortunately, the resistance points to that are in the past. The cost and educational effectiveness benefits have become clear. It's reached down to the community college level at this point, in Georgia and elsewhere." In fact, Manning adds, the widened implementation of distance learning technologies is a significant factor in an estimated 1,000-student enrollment increase in the fall semester.

The demand for enhanced distance learning is coming from the students themselves. Instructors and professors are embracing it, as well, though not always at the same level of enthusiasm as their students. Kennesaw has edged the technologies in slowly, with most courses structured as hybrids, partially distance, partially on campus. Tech-savvy students are the most vocal about preferring technology-based learning. Many instructors feel the same way, though for those who have been less adaptive Kennesaw offers stipends for mentoring-type programs to bring them up to speed on the technology and to ease the phobia that often accompanies it. However, the teachers are not the only ones who can be hesitant about accepting new teaching technologies. Kennesaw uses a questionnaire to screen students wishing to enter distance-learning environments to establish their own levels of familiarity and comfort with computer-based learning.

A Multimedia Approach
The results are evident: The drop rate from hybrid and distance learning courses has been comparable to those of conventional course instruction, says Manning. She believes that both the increasing effectiveness of the technologies and an accelerating familiarity with the process of electronically teaching and learning have contributed to the distance learning program's success. "There's going to be early adopters on both sides, students and teachers," she observes. "But at some point, the level of comfort in doing it this way begins to even out."

cast:stream's multimedia approach has helped this process considerably, Manning explains. The system's ability to present real-time graphics and live presentations—in sync with video and audio—keeps the informational exchange process seamless. The system's integrated IM chat capability allows for real-time dialog exchange between the instructor/moderator and students in various locations on campus and at home.

Manning appreciates the support for widely accepted graphics and presentation programs and platforms that cast:stream supports, including PowerPoint and QuickTime. She also looks forward to the integration of even more broadly used presentation elements into systems like these, particularly tactile elements such as electronic whiteboards. The enthusiastic student response to the use of interactive teaching systems, combined with the power of third-party software, has led the school to consider a pilot program in which instructor aides work with teachers and moderators in handling what is becoming a dense flow of two-way information. "As the teacher is going through the presentation, he or she may sometimes need help moderating the flow on Instant Messages coming from students that the teacher needs to respond to," Manning explains.

Faculty and students are quickly becoming acculturated to the notion of technology-based learning, and the bottlenecks in the information flow are being ironed out with a combination of new techniques and a broader array of editing products. But the immediate impact of the economic benefit of systems such as cast:stream are perhaps more obvious in contrast to a difficult economy which is seriously affecting the education sector.

"It answers a huge and growing need in the entire economy," says Manning. "More students understand the need to get advanced degrees, but also have to work while they're pursuing them. The demand is there to get coursework into a virtual domain. Fortunately, the tools to do that effectively are now here and getting better all the time."

For more information, contact Lisa Manning (lmanning@kennesaw.edu), director of instructional technology at Kennesaw State University.

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