Teaching on the Web

As seen by East Carolina University professor Elmer Poe, the classroom is about two inches square. Seated in front of a computer and wearing a headset and a tiny microphone clipped to his shirt, Dr. Poe talks to the computer screen and to a miniature camera perched above it.

“Anyone absent this evening?” he asks.

“All here,” says a voice from one of the seated people shown in a small picture block in the upper left corner of the computer screen.

In the lower corner is a live close-up of the professor. Each video frame is only slightly larger than the cover of a match book, while the rest of the screen resembles a word processing page.

This is high-tech teaching, but at a cost that is affordable to almost anyone who owns a late-model computer. Although still in its development stages, the desktop interactive video system that ECU has dubbed a “course in a crate,” makes the expensive, big-camera studios, with their array of microwave and satellite dishes and other flashy electronics gear, seem almost pretentious.

“This is going to change the way colleges and universities teach,” said Barry DuVall, a professor in the ECU School of Industry and Technology.

Dr. DuVall directs ECU’s three-year, federally funded Defense Industry Partnership Project. The project, supported by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Technology Reinvestment Project and the National Science Foundation, provides education and retraining programs for people affected by cuts in defense industry spending. ECU’s role involves offering a master’s degree program in industrial technology and manufacturing for defense industry scientists and engineers.

To reach students at Black and Decker plants in Fayetteville and Easton, Md., and at Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, the ECU instructors use a new computer-based distance learning delivery system.

The equipment for the interactive computer system consists of software, a tiny camera, modem and plug-in circuit cards. The cost is about $1,450 and the price is falling rapidly.

After the initial purchase of equipment, the other technical expense of putting a professor in front of a distant classroom, is the price of a long distance telephone call.

The new system is an economical alternative to the distance learning requirement of two years ago when the project started. Then, the instructors relied on studios, microwave relays and satellites to transmit their lectures

DuVall believes the improvements in computer desktop interactive video, that converts pictures and sounds into digital formats and shoots them over standard telephone wire, shows an even greater benefit for long-distance learning.

Poe presented his class this summer to a group of graduate students at Pope Air Force Base, more than 100 miles away. The classroom at the base uses a large screen TV to project the pictures and text from the professor’s computer in Greenville.

At the present time, only one computer can link with another computer using desktop interactive video, but this is about to change. New devices and software will soon permit interactive computer party lines that will give students at home an interactive connection with a teacher and other on-line classmates.

“We are already doing some of this now, but without the video and audio,” said DuVall. He said Industrial Technology offers its entire graduate program using a computer bulletin board. The students dial in with their computers to the bulletin board – the Purple and Gold Express – for instructions and assignments.