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Bridging the Gap--Online and Offline Learning

For residents of California’s sprawling Eastern Sierra Corridor, distance learning is often a necessity—not an option. Cerro Coso Community College serves this 18,000-square-mile stretch of mountain, desert and valley communities. It is one of the largest community college service areas in the U.S., with a population base of over 85,000.

The school has five on-ground instructional sites. A sixth site, its online campus, is the largest in terms of enrollment. Cerro Coso delivers 12 associate degrees online and over 250 distance learning courses a year. Since 2001, our Academy of Media Arts has offered online degrees in digital animation and Web design.

Studying digital animation remotely can be challenging, to say the least. Learning to work as an artist is all about critique. If you’re not teaching in a traditional classroom, you need a practical way to post a student’s work so that other students can comment and react to it.

Last January we began using Macromedia Breeze to create our digital animation courses. The Breeze system includes several components that can be used together to deliver both live and on-demand Web-based training and presentations. Breeze allows us to add narration, slides, and animation to PowerPoint and deliver this audiovisual material through any standard Web browser. Breeze Live, a component that extends the Breeze platform with collaborative features like screen-sharing and application-sharing, has completely changed our online classes. Seven evenings a week an instructor hosts a “virtual” open lab, a live, faculty-facilitated study group online.

During these sessions, the instructor answers questions and provides skills demonstrations for the various applications the class is learning to use. These include Softimage XSI, Alias Maya, Adobe Photoshop, and Conitec 3D GameStudio. Students ask questions through the chat window, and the instructor answers the questions via the desktop by going into the screen-share mode. Prior to the implementation, we had no immediate, cost-effective way to demonstrate techniques students didn’t understand. In the past, our only option would be to record the correct answer, burn it onto a CD-ROM, and snail-mail it to the individual student. With 20 or 30 such requests per week, this task was time-consuming and impractical.

Attendance at virtual open labs is not compulsory. We record and archive sessions that are of general interest in a searchable digital library for 24/7 access by all our students. This centralized library also contains individual student projects and presentations. The Academy of Media Arts has 11 online faculty, all of whom create their own course materials. When I introduced them to the system, it took them about 15 minutes to absorb the information. Admittedly, these were design professionals, but instructors in our other departments also catch on quickly.

The more faculty exposed to this new technology, the more they will undoubtedly dream up new applications. As designers and distance educators, we are constantly seeking affordable, media-rich methods to communicate more effectively with our online students.

About the Author

Jim Kiggens ([email protected]) is director of The Academy of Media Arts at Cerro Coso Community College in Ridgecrest, Calif.

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