Virtual Classroom

University of Wisconsin - River Falls

Oct. 25, 1996

Agriculture Courses a Virtual Experience

The "virtual classroom," once a vision of the future, is now a tool for university students all over Wisconsin.

In the "virtual classroom," students in Stevens Point watch a televised instructor in Illinois who is able to call on them by name and answer their questions from the television screen. It is television that can see and hear!

Aga Razvi, distinguished professor of soil science and water science at the UW-Stevens Point, teaches from a virtual classroom at the College of Du Page in Glen Ellyn, Ill., where he is on a leave of absence, teaching one-quarter time. The class on solid waste management is received at both UWSP and the UW-River Falls simultaneously.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture grant totaling more than $160,000 funds the collaborative project between UW-SP, UW-River Falls, UW-Platteville and UW-Madison. Dean Gary Rohde of the UW-RF College of Agriculture, Food & Environmental Sciences serves as the overall project director. Project directors on the campuses include Richard Wilke of UWSP, Mark Zidon of UW-Platteville, and Katrina Larsen of UW-River Falls, and Richard Barrows of UW-Madison. Chere Gibson of UW-Madison, a nationally known expert in distance education, serves as the project consultant.

"This is a unique project in agriculture and natural resources management," Rhode says. "This is an excellent opportunity for the four universities involved to use interactive video technology that will be used increasingly in the future."

According to UW-SP Chancellor Thomas George, "This project has great appeal not only for its creative use of technology and long-distance communication for instruction, but also for its high degree of collaboration among various campuses in the UW System."

Zidon team-teaches with faculty members from UW-River Falls and UW-Madison. The three instructors meet between classes on television and through conference telephone calls. Students contact the teachers and each other with letters sent through computer networks via e-mail.

"It gives future teachers the experience of working with different media, something they will be doing in their careers. I was very pleased with how well the students work together as teams even though most of them have only seen each other on TV and corresponded by e-mail," says Larsen, of River Falls.

"These are exciting times and having faculty members work across campuses is fun to see, and the results are fantastic," Gibson says.

Methods of teaching are different for television than for face to face instruction. Teachers work with a number of cameras, some showing pictures and graphics, some close-up on the instructor and some showing all of the students in the classroom. Some of the students may be in the room with the instructor, but some can only be seen on a television monitor.

Professors are challenged to stimulate discussion and small group interaction among students in remote locations. The traditional lecture, where the instructor talks and students listen, can strain students' concentration. Assignments may require collaboration between students at a distance from each other. In addition, getting the students' work to the faculty and then back to the student can be a challenge.

"The faculty working with the project are putting in a great deal of effort to make the courses truly interactive and 'just like being there' for the students," Larsen says.

E-mail, telephone, and televised conferences are used to solve some of the problems. "We have students coming together working on joint projects across institutions, learning new content and new teaching and learning processes simultaneously." Gibson says. "I think we'll all be better prepared for the next century as a result."

Problems faced by the instructors can be overcome by training and practice, Wilke says. Each campus will use the grant money to train three faculty members in effective methods for teaching at a distance. "We suspect that the teaching methods we develop will not be radically different from the good teaching practices we already know about," Wilke says. "We will learn to apply them in new ways in a radically new environment."

Through distance education, students gain access to a wider variety of courses. For example, because of recent changes in requirements for groundwater specialists, a structural geology course is now needed for the groundwater option in the water resources major at UW-SP. UW-River Falls offers the course, which they will send to UW-SP next fall.

Collaboration will mean less duplication among campuses, but it creates the administrative problems of scheduling classes in more than one place at the same time and giving credit to students from several institutions. The project directors will find out whether the real costs of offering this type of distance education stacks up to the real costs of offering face-to-face courses. Many factors have to be taken into consideration, including preparation time for teachers, the number of students reached, and the number of faculty members involved. "There are many pieces of the puzzle to be considered," Wilke says.

Next fall River Falls and Platteville will receive "Animal Growth, Development and Evaluation," a course designed and team-taught by UW-Madison, Purdue University, the University of Illinois, the University of Missouri and Iowa State University. Details are being worked out for an agricultural law class at UW-Madison to be sent to UW-River Falls and UW-Platteville.

Looking into the future, courses in agri-business, economics, horticulture and landscape architecture may be offered in the spring of 1998. The grant funding will formally be over by then, but "This as an ongoing project that will outlive the grant," Larson says.

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