BMCC closes distance with online education

BMCC writing instructor Gregg Berlie monitors comments from off-campus students via computer while teaching a writing class Friday on the BMCC campus in Pendleton. Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Gregg Berlie's Wednesday morning introduction to literature class was a hybrid of sorts - bringing distance education and face-to-face students into the same literary discussion.

With about 10 students present in Berlie's Morrow Hall classroom, about as many others participated at home by computer and Internet connection, listening as a noise-suppression microphone picked up what was being said in class.

Online students, in turn, had the option of joining in either by text messages from their keyboard or speaking into their own microphone pieces.

One distance education student in particular, Sheila, used her keyboard to contribute several comments and questions that appeared on a projected computer screen in front of the classroom.

Berlie said he had one class session in which two online students got into a side discussion using text chats - which appeared on screen.

"While I'm talking everybody else in class is watching these two students carry on their own discussion about what I'm talking about," Berlie said.

The software making it all happen was Elluminate Live, a program now being used to conduct writing and math classes, as well. This is the third year BMCC has used the program for online classes, but the first year in which it's been used in combination with face-to-face teaching.

"This has been absolutely fantastic because the students out there now have a voice," Berlie said.

Instructor Cathy Muller also began using Elluminate Live to teach her Math 111 class. Using another product called the mimio, Muller can use a white board pen that captures the image onto a computer screen. Example problems and equations that she draws show up in real time for people watching at a computer terminal.

Muller even began hosting evening tutorial sessions, logging into the program with any other students who choose to participate and ask questions while Muller goes over problems.

As an added benefit, instructors using the live program can record any lecture or discussion, which then becomes posted online and available for students to access whenever they please.

"And I had face-to-face students that would get a copy of a tutorial," Muller said.

Amy Bathke, a distance education student from Enterprise, said it was Muller's class that helped her succeed in her more advanced statistics class. Having a teacher to verbally speak with and walk her through the problems, she said, offered an enormous advantage compared to other online courses she has taken.

"She was able to tell you real-time," Bathke said. "Usually, you have no contact with the teacher."

Berlie recently discovered another benefit of the live program - online office hours. Instead of making students come to his Pendleton office, Berlie sat at home on a Sunday evening and had a 45-minute discussion with students logged onto the program.

"I had three students in there; they all had their microphones," Berlie said. "It was just amazing."

Berlie, who has taught at BMCC for 22 years and distance education classes for the last 10, said incorporating the new technologies kept him fresh as a teacher.

He and others credited specialist Bruce Kauss as being the man behind the curtain who trains instructors on new ways to incorporate the online technology.

It seems Kauss - who remembers when distance education involved mailing students lectures on VHS cassette tapes - couldn't be more excited about how the new technology was being used to help distance education students succeed.

This fall, he said, there have been about 1,300 enrollments in distance education courses, up from about 1,070 enrollments the year before. Although enrolling online costs students an extra $85 fee per class, Kauss said many students say they more than make up for that amount in gas money savings.

Still, Kauss said, taking online classes isn't for everyone.

"Students have to have the discipline, the time management to actually complete a course," Kauss said.

In the meantime, Kauss continues to look for ways of improving the program, and better ways to engage students.

"What I look at is ... what can we do to make it better?" he said.

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