What I learned at Drexel University in National Distance Learning Week

November 14, 2016 Tony Bates

A street protester in Philadelphia on election day

A street artist in Philadelphia on election day

Fear and loathing in Philadelphia

On Tuesday and Wednesday last week, I found myself in Philadelphia on U.S. Presidential Election day, and even more importantly, the day after, as the results became known. I was there, not to ‘rig’ the election, as some have rumoured, but to visit one of the leaders in online learning in the USA, Drexel University.

I’m not going to say much more about the election, except to note that as in the rest of the country, Pennsylvania was deeply split, with cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburg voting strongly for Clinton, and suburban areas, smaller towns and rural areas voting in sufficiently large enough numbers for Trump to just about win the state and its electoral votes. So the election results have caused a certain amount of fear and loathing in Philadelphia, particularly among the university community.

Why Drexel?

Drexel University is a private, nonprofit university ranked among the top 100 universities in the USA. In 2016 it was ranked the 8th most innovative university in the USA by US News and World Report. It has about 26,000 students.

Drexel University was founded in 1891 as the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry, by Philadelphia financier and philanthropist Anthony J. Drexel. The original mission of the institution was to provide educational opportunities in the “practical arts and sciences” for women and men of all backgrounds. It is famed for its co-op education program and its close links to local industry and businesses, and in the past for its acceptance and encouragement of low income students. However in recent years its focus has changed, partly driven by the perceived need to increase its ranking. Today it has very high student tuition fees and a highly selective admission process.

I was there to visit Drexel University Online (DUO), an internal division within the university that serves those students at Drexel taking online courses and programs.

Drexel Online

Drexel University has more than 7,000 online students from all 50 states and more than 20 countries. It offers 140 fully accredited master’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees and certificate programs in a wide range of disciplines. Nursing in particular has a very strong set of online programs. Drexel was an early pioneer of online learning, offering its first fully online master’s degree in 1996.

Drexel University founded National Distance Learning Week, in conjunction with the United States Distance Learning Association, in 2007, and has won several national awards for institution-wide excellence in online education.

As part of Drexel’s contribution to National Distance Learning Week, I was invited as a guest speaker, to talk about ’21st century knowledge and online learning: re-designing teaching for a digital age.’ While at Drexel, I also took the opportunity to see what Drexel is doing with advanced learning technologies.

Advanced use of technologies at Drexel Online

DUO offers faculty a technology lending library, where faculty can try out new devices and evaluate their potential for teaching. This includes an augmented reality headset that combines a cheap ($10-$15), easily assembled cardboard frame into which a mobile phone can be inserted in front of the eyes, enabling augmented reality programs to be delivered at very low cost to the student (provided they already have a mobile phone).

DUO has also developed a very interesting web site, called VirtuallyInspired.org, which showcases a number of innovations in online learning from institutions across North America and around the world.

Here I will describe briefly just a few of Drexel’s own innovative projects, which I hope will inspire you to look in more detail at the VirtuallyInspired web site.

Tina the Avatar

Tina the Avatar

Tina the Avatar

Tina is an avatar of a 28 year old woman in a virtual world who not only responds to questions asked by students but can also be physically examined and will respond according to how she is being treated. The teaching around Tina is broken down into 10 modules, each of which correlate with a body system that students learn about in class. The program serves not only as reinforcement for the principles taught in the course, but also to develop interpersonal skills needed by clinical professionals. Professors are able to view the type of questions asked by the student and how the student reacts to Tina’s responses. They are then able to give the student advice and make recommendations for interpersonal skill improvement.

Synchronous online teaching

Drexel is experimenting with the use of low-cost (US$250) robots (Kubi) combined with iPads to improve the ‘telepresence’ of students in online webinars. In the classroom where the instructor is located, there is an iPad for each remote student locked into a robot that each student can remotely move around the instructor’s classroom. Using Skype and the camera on the student’s computer, the student’s face appears on the iPad. In this way the instructor can see the faces and hear each individual student via the iPad, and the students at home can also see on their screen not only the instructor but also the iPad images of all the other students in the class. This system is already in use at the Michigan State University.

Using Kubi for telepresence at Michigan State University

Using Kubi for telepresence at Michigan State University

Forensic investigation

Students taking a course on forensic investigation can use a branching video sequence to search for clues at a crime scene. Students can do a virtual walk around and inside a house and are asked to observe and interpret what they see, followed by a debriefing afterwards.

These are just a few of the several innovations that Drexel is experimenting with. Others include the use of video simulations in law and nursing, dealing with critical incidents in practice.

Innovation and operations

Drexel University is to be congratulated for two reasons: it has an extensive, ongoing online program that delivers a wide range of courses on a daily basis to over 7,000 students. For most of these courses, the challenges are common to all online post-secondary programs: ensuring that the programs are of high quality and that students succeed. This means applying well known best practices and procedures, using standard tools such as a learning management system, and ensuring that students are well supported by instructors.

At the same time, DUO is investing some of its energy and resources to investigating new ways of designing and delivering online teaching. This means finding like-minded faculty partners who can see the potential of new technologies and who are willing to put in the time and effort to do something different. The challenge here is to evaluate each innovation, to integrate such innovations into regular teaching, and then to ensure the diffusion of successful innovations into a wider range of courses and programs.

Getting the right balance between on-going operations and innovation is a challenge but one that Drexel Online seems more than able to handle.

And lastly, I cannot express enough my appreciation for the kindness and attention paid to me by Susan Aldridge, the Director of DUO, and all her staff during my visit. Elections may come and go, but American hospitality continues for ever.

Previous Article
Second webinar on choosing media for online learning
Second webinar on choosing media for online learning

This morning I delivered (for the second time) a Contact North webinar: Choosing Media: How They Differ and...

Next Article
A survey of distance education in Brazil
A survey of distance education in Brazil

ABED (2016) 2015 Brazilian Census for Distance Learning: Analytical Report on Distance Learning in Brazil S...