Tri-state Distance Education: Building a Learning Community in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon
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Idaho is a large, sparsely populated state. It ranks 11th in the U.S. in geographical size and 39th in population density. The state thrives on its agricultural industry; 25% of Idahos gross state product comes from agriculture. These demographics present a need and excellent opportunity for distance education, especially in the field of agriculture. That is why the College of Agriculture at the University of Idaho works hard to make distance education courses available to students around the state.
Part of this outreach effort is an online, upper-division class entitled Agribusiness Management, which Foltz first offered in fall 1997 with the assistance of Garnsey-Harter (a distance education specialist). This course provides students with an overview of business management applied to agribusiness. Agribusiness includes firms in input supply industries such as seed, feed, fertilizer, and agrichemicals as well as production agriculture and businesses in the food processing, distribution, and retailing areas. The objectives of the agribusiness course are:
In addition to meeting Idahos distance education needs, this course is part of a developing tri-state cooperative distance education program. The Tri-State Agricultural Distance Delivery Alliance (TADDA) offers a degree program developed by the colleges of agriculture at the University of Idaho (UI), Washington State University (WSU), and Oregon State University (OSU). TADDA's goal is to enable students in the tri-state area to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture through distance delivery.
The UI courses in this program are available primarily to students at Resident Instruction Centers around the state and secondarily to students worldwide. In order to fulfill delivery objectives, Agribusiness Management is available asynchronously at a distance. A recent version of the courseoffered during fall 1998 in two sections, one for 40 on-campus students and another for 14 distance students in the TADDA programincluded the following components: two Web sites, an interactive virtual space, videotapes, textbooks, and a print course packet of case studies. The Web pages, one for on-campus students and one for distance students (updated for 1999 offerings), reflect the difference in assignments for each group. The on-campus students participated in a business simulation game, a team assignment that would have proven difficult to administer at a distance because it included written and oral components. As a substitution for the simulation, the off-campus students were assigned six more case studies (10 total) than the on-campus students (4 total). Both sections were required to participate in online threaded discussions twice per week, and both had midterm and final exams.
Online Course Components
The course Web sites are fairly typical; they provide syllabi, class notes, copies of old exams and their answers, links to agribusiness Web sites, links to similar agribusiness classes, and a space for class participation. Class participation accounted for 10% of the students grades and took place through electronic threaded discussions in an innovative virtual environment called the Speakeasy Studio and Café. The Speakeasy was created by a select group of educators and administrators at WSU.
Within the Speakeasy, we posted a discussion topic each week; students were required to post a minimum of two responses, either to the initial topic or to someone elses comments. Because of these threaded discussions, the class was much more interactive than it had been traditionallyeven when the course was taught entirely face-to-face. Students responded positively to the online interactions, especially in the "off-the-record" course evaluations that we administered as a supplement to the standard University evaluation form. In response to the question, "What were the most valuable aspects of this course?" one student said, "I thoroughly enjoyed the Speakeasy Café," while another said, "Good information and lots of computer interaction." The latter student suggested having "more work with Speakeasy discussions" as a way to improve the course.
The Speakeasy allowed us to easily incorporate agribusiness experts from around the country into the learning community. During certain weeks, an outside expert constructed a description of a real-life situation or problem that was put on the virtual "table" for discussion. (Click here for instructions on how to see a sample discussion.) The agribusiness professional, students, and instructor then engaged in an asynchronous discussion of that topic. This method of integrating current, real-world experiences and situations into the course encouraged lively participation from all class members, even those who might have been hesitant to participate in traditional face-to-face discussions.
Our overall goal was to enhance the learning opportunities of both on- and off-campus students while maintaining equal performance requirements. The course results, as measured in student grades and student evaluations of the class, were mixed and thus warrant course redesign.
Figure 1 shows the final grade distribution for the fall 1998 traditional and distance sections of Agribusiness Management. The on-campus students grades were skewed toward As and Bs, while the off-campus students grades centered more around Cs and Ds. This grade difference may partially be attributed to the slightly different course requirements: the on-campus students had a group project (25% percent of their grade) and fewer written case studies. As the one who graded the assignments, Foltz feels that he evaluated the team projects somewhat more leniently; the case studies were more difficult assignments for students as a whole. In our effort to translate the assignments from the traditional format to distance delivery while maintaining performance requirements, we may have actually made the class more rigorous for distance students.
The grade difference also may reflect the different populations of students. A few distance students were obviously ready for a distance learning experience: they demanded much out of the course, were disciplined and hard workers, and brought additional insight and experience into the class due to their older age and previous work experience. Others were poorer students in terms of their maturity and their unrealistically low expectations of what was required to complete assignments and exams. For instance, some distance students wrote a two-page response to an assignment while others wrote only two paragraphs. These discrepanciesand the notable gap between the overall performance of distance versus on-campus studentssuggest that the former need to be more disciplined and serious to successfully complete an upper-division distance learning course.
Despite their lower academic performance, the distance students reported that they thoroughly enjoyed the class. In the off-the-record course evaluation, distance students' comments were generally more positive than those of the on-campus students. We suspect that this is in part due to the video portion of the course, which was the same for both student populations. The on-campus students, who are used to a live instructor, disliked watching pre-produced lectures even though they could be viewed conveniently via videotape or at a specific time on cable TV. The off-campus students considered the same video format an improvement over paper-based "correspondence" courses, which used to be the primary vehicle for distance education classes at the University of Idaho.
While the students differed in their reactions
to the non-interactive mode of asynchronous delivery (video), both groups responded
positively to the online interactive environment of the Speakeasy Café. It was this component of the Agribusiness
Management course that most helped us implement our pedagogical goals.
While the students differed in their reactions to the non-interactive mode of asynchronous delivery (video), both groups responded positively to the online interactive environment of the Speakeasy Café. It was this component of the Agribusiness Management course that most helped us implement our pedagogical goals.The Speakeasy allowed us to build a meaningful learning community in a tri-state region by garnering active participation from individual students, fostering more interaction among students, and integrating real-world insight into the coursework. We encourage other faculty to integrate interactive online components into their courses and offer the Speakeasy as a way to begin. It requires no knowledge of html by the instructor and involves very little administration; best of all, any non-profit institution can use the environment free of charge. Simply go to the Speakeasy homepage, click Start, then choose About to learn how the Café can enrich your distance education offerings.