Blending Educational Technologies at Radford University

By Dennie Templeton, Director of Distance Education
Radford University

In developing and deploying distance education technologies, defining distance education can be as difficult as implementing it. The primary objective, of course, is to maintain the connection between educator and learner through various media and technologies.

Hybrid, or blended, instruction reflects the interactive nature of distance education and closes the gap between distance education and the traditional classroom model. Radford University has taken this approach to distance education instructional technologies and the collaborative support infrastructure.

Radford University, in Radford, Virginia, is a 9,100-student c'educational, comprehensive institution with undergraduate and graduate programs. Most students live in university residence halls or within walking distance of campus. Graduate programs are offered on campus and through regional education centers in southwest Virginia. Our university, a member of ACUTA, the Organization for Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education, places great emphasis on student-faculty interaction both on and off campus, and our distance education initiatives reflect this.

The Office of Distance Education (ODE) coordinates technology development and delivery of educational offerings to extended campus centers and Web-based portals, using both synchronous and asynchronous technologies. The ODE also collaborates with the campus IT departments, network services, academic computing, the Technology in Learning Center (TLC), computer services, and campus facilities departments in the evaluation and development of hybrid courses and programs that utilize a combination of approaches to instructional delivery.

Radford took a step-by-step approach to implementing new technologies for both campus and extended-site locations, considering costs, reliability, budgeting, and support issues.

As a state institution, we use a state teleconference network facilitated by Virginia Tech. Radford uses the network for delivery of educational programming, meetings, advising, and faculty projects. Through the ATM, ISDN, or IP network, Radford can provide connections to Virginia educational institutions, selected K-12 schools, and a number of state agencies.

Our first applications were teleconferencing classes that used two-way interactive television classroom systems. Graduate classes were offered between the main campus and regional locations in southwest Virginia. Synchronous teleconferencing classes are the closest simulation to a face-to-face education experience and are structured to parallel traditional on-campus classes.

In 1999, Radford maintained three two-way interactive distance education classrooms; two on campus and one at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke. No identified technical support was in place, and multi-site connections were not possible unless requested, approved, and connected through the state network.

Later that year, ODE was established to facilitate the emerging program requests. Multiple departments worked together to support the teleconference model and to examine new and emerging instructional technologies. Through collaboration and in-house training programs, faculty and technical staff were exposed to a holistic approach for identifying and deploying new instructional technologies.

Radford now has five videoconference distance education classrooms on campus and deploys four Polycom portable videoconferencing units to sites on and off campus for short-term videoconferencing requests. At the extended campus sites, classrooms have been added at the Roanoke Higher Education Center, Virginia Western Community College, and the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon.

An ISDN and IP Accord Polycom communications bridge on campus allows Radford to function as a multiple-site host. Working with regional community colleges and K-12 schools, Radford has communication portals throughout the state. Applications include connections to local hospitals and state agencies for training, meetings, and instruction. Faculty and student sessions have been linked to educational institutions and sites in Ireland, England, China, and South Africa.

Radford also has instructional satellite downlink capabilities. These are used primarily for professional development, PBS, and NASA programming. Through the efforts of several campus departments, a dish farm was established to support delivery of programming through the campus cable television network, allowing downlinked programs to reach most classrooms on campus.

As the network evolved, Radford departments evaluated various instructional delivery methods and designed an efficient model for support. The first consideration was to treat distance education technologies as teaching tools. Faculty could use them to support and implement their curricula using Web-based materials, teleconferencing, Web streams, satellite, or a combination of these. Our team concept also provides a structured model that assists faculty in developing or converting courses for multimedia, Web-based, and Web-enhanced delivery.

At the same time, Radford’s academic computing and TLC departments developed and deployed a comprehensive WebCT professional development program for faculty and staff. Web-based technologies are used to develop and deliver hybrid Web-enhanced instruction using combinations such as videoconferencing, video streaming, and face-to-face instruction.

Adoption of WebCT offered Radford faculty a variety of instructional support options, which most faculty now use as Web-enhanced tools. These include discussion boards, grade books, and research and assignment posting.

Radford subsequently adopted Macromedia Breeze to provide training and videoconference capabilities using the Web. As with WebCT, the focus of the support structure for Web-based initiatives was built on the professional development initiatives provided by academic computing, TLC, and IT services through the Office of Professional Development.

With a hybrid approach, Radford has been able to build on each instructional technology implementation. As WebCT and Macromedia Breeze were integrated, the technology and instructional departments identified how to present the technologies as instructional tools – and not strictly for distance education. New Web-based delivery platforms offer faculty expanded options in delivering Web-based instruction. Macromedia Breeze allows archived video of lectures and posting of presentations online as independent lectures or as supplements to Web-based platforms such as WebCT. This has enabled the university to maximize its technical support resources both on campus and at regional extended-education centers.

Strategic planning for distance education involves many issues, including advancement and deployment of new and emerging technologies, a new student base, and faculty and administrative perceptions. Any strategic initiative must not only address the pedagogical and instructional development concerns, but also ask key questions about support. It is important to address these concerns in a plan that ensures that technology is not the driver, but instead is used to support curriculum development.

To keep the interactive television ATM network current, Radford added the Polycom bridging network in 2003 for its capability to support ATM, ISDN, and most importantly, IP delivery. The bridge handles all three portals together or independently, depending on the teleconferencing needs. Any room on campus – at extended-education centers or temporary locations – can become a teleconference classroom through a network access plug-in.

Among other campus-wide technology initiatives, Radford became one of the first Virginia universities with a completely wireless networked campus. The IT and network services departments are working toward participation in the Next Generation Network Virginia Internet2 program. These enhance the reliability and broadband delivery capabilities for on- and off-campus instruction. The Waldron College of Nursing and Health Science works with regional hospitals to provide videoconferencing for instruction, conferences, and tele-health connections for rural southwest Virginia.

Properly implemented technology can enhance and improve student learning. This is the number one priority of any technological or educational reform. To implement the reform, students and faculty must be knowledgeable consumers of instructional and distance education technologies and be comfortable with them. The success that Radford has realized through integration of new and emerging instructional technologies is a credit to the collaborative support model among its many departments.

Dennie Templeton is director of distance education at Radford University and a member of ACUTA, the Association for Communications Professionals in Higher Education. Reach him at dtemplet@radford.edu. Information on ACUTA is available at www.acuta.org.

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