Continuing Studies to test distance learning

Rani Gupta

Northwestern’s first foray into distance learning will take place Spring Quarter, said Karen Randall, senior associate dean for academic programming and distance learning in the School of Continuing Studies.

Continuing Studies will be working with the graduate engineering program to use video conferencing and computers in distance learning.

NU also is working on expanding distance learning in its undergraduate evening courses, to be available as early as next year, Randall said.

Some universities, such as Western Illinois University, have taken distance-learning technology a step farther, allowing students to earn bachelor’s degrees without stepping foot on campus.

Beginning next quarter, students taking graduate courses in engineering management at NU will be able to hold video conferences with people at the Motorola offices in Schaumburg. Continuing Studies also is working with NU Information Technology and is talking to faculty members, primarily in the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, about adapting their classes for distance learning.

In addition to the distance-learning classes, some classes next year likely will use a combination of traditional classroom methods and distance-learning techniques, Randall said.

Continuing Studies’ efforts are an acknowledgement that the current evening programs might be difficult for working adults to attend, she said.

“We are trying to attract students that would like to attend NU, but can’t get here because they work downtown or live in the western suburbs,” Randall said. “We need to make classes more available.”

All students in Continuing Studies have outside jobs. Most have full-time jobs, sometimes in managerial positions, and many have family responsibilities, Randall said. About half already have a degree and are looking for a career change, while the others are working on their first degree.

T.J. Weber, who works full time at an Internet company, took evening classes at NU.

“For working professionals like myself, it’s difficult to take classes during the day, ” he said.

Randall said some students might even have trouble making night classes, especially because there could be as many as 17 class meetings each week.

Students at Western Illinois can earn degrees by taking classes through mail or online instead. Western Illinois recently moved to expand its program by making an agreement to publicize distance learning with the Army Reserve National Guard Institute and the Coast Guard Institute.

But NU will not be going so far, at least not right away.

The primary obstacle to distance learning, Randall said, is the “costs associated with teaching faculty and creating course material suitable for the Web.” Also, some discussion-based classes are harder to adapt than lecture-based ones, she said.

“We’re doing this slowly, not making a whole degree program at a time,” Randall said.