UF's First Online Distance Learning Program Off To Strong Start

Published: December 18 1998


GAINESVILLE — Joseph Worrell used to spend 2 ½ hours on the road to get to his graduate-school class, a tough commute for a professional with a busy schedule as a troubleshooter for a national wireless communication service.

Now, Worrell never even gets in his car to go to school — even though his class at the University of Florida in Gainesville is hundreds of miles from his Palm Beach Gardens office.

Worrell, an applications support specialist for AT&T Wireless Services, is one of 45 students in a computer communications course that is part of UF’s first Internet online degree program. First developed a year ago, the electrical and computer engineering master’s degree program allows students anywhere on the globe to watch professors deliver live or archived lectures, interact electronically, even download notes coinciding with each lecture topic.

For Worrell and nine other students taking the class from off-campus workplaces, the ability to further his education online has proved vital.

“There’s a big difference between having to walk out of a meeting with issues unresolved to go fight the traffic versus just catching the class at home,” he said.

Frank Mayadas, a program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, said UF’s program is similar to programs at several of the nation’s top-ranked universities.

“I think they’re in very good company, and they’re doing some terrific stuff,” he said.

The on-line program was developed by Haniph Latchman, a UF associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, with a $135,000 grant from the Sloan Foundation, a New York City-based philanthropic nonprofit institution. The College of Engineering’s electrical and computer engineering department contributed $67,500. The college’s department of computer and information science and engineering is launching a similar program this spring.

Latchman said the program targets on-campus and off-campus students. Many of the off-campus students already are taking distance-learning classes through the UF College of Engineering Florida Engineering Education Delivery System, which uses videotapes and printed materials for distance education. In both programs, students can earn certificates as well as the master’s degree, and some students including Worrell are not necessarily seeking degrees.

While videotapes and printed materials are effective learning tools, the online program is more interactive.

For one thing, the program gives students the option of watching and listening to lectures live or downloading them at a convenient time. Through a chat-room-like feature, it also allows students to communicate with the professor or each other in real time. For example, students can type in questions while a professor lectures. The professor can read the questions on his screen, then answer them immediately.

The technology is called an Asynchronous Learning Network, “asynchronous” because it is not tied to time or place.

A few minutes spent watching an online class reveal the program’s advantages and challenges.

The sound quality is as good as or better than a telephone line, but the image appears in slow motion. This occurs because images on the World Wide Web move at five to seven frames per second, slower than the 30-frames-per-second common on televisions, Latchman said. The slow-moving image, however, is less noticeable when the camera zooms in on the professor writing notes or making diagrams, an important element, he said.

“We feel watching professors work on the board greatly enhances students’ ability to learn, and this aspect shows up in slow motion very well,” he said.

The program also has a feature that beams students prepared notes coinciding with each topic in the professors’ lectures, like successive overheads in a classroom setting.

Students say the classes are effective, though the technology is not perfect.

“For me, having the lectures, notes and assignment material online was a very convenient way of reviewing the material taught in class,” said Jose Sanchez, an employee at Motorola, Inc. who takes the class from Boynton Beach. “…This method has the potential to make the student feel like he or she is in the classroom.”

James Campanella, an electrical engineer at Harris Corp. in Melbourne, said he misses face-to-face interaction but the online class is a good substitute.

“Dr. Latchman has provided a substantial avenue for student-to-student and student-to-teacher interaction via the list server, and he is always only an e-mail away,” he said.

At least one element of the program, which has the same level of accreditation as UF’s campus-based programs, is strictly traditional: testing. All tests are administered in person either on campus or by proctors at students’ offices, Latchman said.

“We maintain the high quality of evaluative processes by ensuring we have proper oversight,” he said.



Christopher Davis


Haniph Latchman