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Rocketing Fuel Costs Promote Telelearning & Educational VR
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Rocketing Fuel Costs Promote Telelearning & Educational VR

It seems that there is a silver lining to the rocketing price of crude oil and its derivative products. With car fuel prices soaring, they are becoming beyond the means for students to afford. What happens when students cannot afford to drive, but live off-campus? They bring campus to them, instead.

Online courses are the first sign of this, and subscription for them is increasing between 25-50% compared to this time last year, depending on which institution you ask.

Sample Data, provided by institutions willing to release figures:

Institution Online Course Sign-up 2007 Online Course Sign-up 2008 % Increase
Brevard Community College in Cocoa, Florida
2190
2726
24
the Tennessee Board of Regents (Tennessee state, combined)
7000
9000
29
University of Colorado, Denver
233
361
55

All three of those are in the US, indicating even the biggest consumer of petrol is being hit hard.Other US institutions agreed to give percentage increases, but declined to give actual numbers of enrollment:

Institution Online Course percentage increase
Bristol Community College in Fall River, Massachusetts
114%
Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, Missouri
52%
UMass Online
46%
Villanova University in Pennsylvania
40%
South Texas College, Texas
35%

The data indication is of a strong trend to e-learning. However, there are problems with implementing this approach on any aging education system. Online tutors are frequently seen as less standing than campuss professors. Likewise, online courses are typically e-learning not VR, and so miss out on the social interaction and free teamwork aspects. Then there is the problem with institutions not willing to put all their courses online - typically only 1/4 of an institution's offerings can be taught this way.

Still, the onus is changing. As one professor put it:

Dr Jim Drake, president of Brevard Community College stated that unless a way was found to cobat or bypass rising fuel costs, many students would be forced to drop out of education altogether. He has already instituted a four-day working week at the college as mounting fuel costs were endangering both students and members of the faculty from being able to continue working there.

With such drastic measures being taken, and general agreement that online course sign ups are going to continue to soar - at Bristol Community, the only reason online enrollments stopped at 114% above normal, according to April Belafiore, assistant Dean, is that that was the maximum space they had the staff to teach. It filled up immediately, so if they had had more staff dedicated to online courses, that figure would have been even higher.

The Social Problem

The problem with e-learning (well, one of the major problems) is the lack of social interaction with peers. Because of this, students tend to find the going harder, and lack the formation of dynamic friendships, and off the cuff willingness to help each other out that forms in physical classrooms. Interaction is normally lecturer to student and back again, with little to no direct cross-feed to other students in the same class.

The only way to change this paradigm is to introduce more of a social setting to distance learning and create a classroom construct that immerses a group of students at one time. In other words, a virtual environment.

VR based telelearning or e-learning is in its infancy, but the use of it is growing, predominantly centred around platforms such as SecondLife or ActiveWorlds, where the 3D nature of the environment allows students to embody avatars, and sit at desks, or stand, wander around still in earshot of the lecturer, and talk to one another, interact with the environment, whisper messages and give each other notes.

Yes, some of these elements can distract, but students are in higher learning off their own bat to learn in the first place. If they choose to muck around when they are paying the course fees themselves, well, it's not exactly a majority issue.

On the flip side, social networking returns to the equation. Friendships can be formed, and struggling students find the going easier as class discussion takes place. Films of one another's projects can be shared through the environment, or worked on collaboratively in small groups using commercial off the shelf software integrated in.

These social learning environments can also be segregated from the public outer VR environments, maintaining the secure feel of campus learning, just without the necessity to actually drive to the campus to do it.

If VR-based e-learning is so great, why do so few do it?

Inertia.

It takes time for institutions, stuck in one way of doing things, to change. That change is happening, and is starting to pick up pace. A slowly increasing number of institutions, still only numbering in dozens, are beginning to hold classes in VR, and set up entire virtual campusses, so that students never have to leave home to attend classes, and still gain most of the benefit of physical attendance. That means no fuel bill to speak of.

References

Bucks County Community College

Brevard Community College

the Tennessee Board of Regents

Bristol Community College

Ozarks Technical Community College

UMass Online

Villanova University in Pennsylvania

South Texas College

Futher Reading

Second Life Education Wiki

Universities, Colleges and Schools in Second Life

Active Worlds and Education

ActiveWorlds: The River City Project

ProtonMedia ...Virtual Worlds for Collaboration and Learning

Staff Comments

 


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