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1-12 May 1998

Vol. I, No. 30

Feature Article

The Distance Learning Initiative

At work the classroom's a movable feast

by Diane C. Grant

Imagine you're working full-time for a large industrial firm and doing graduate-level course work to keep up-to-date on developments in your field. Every Tuesday, say, you load up your briefcase, grab a coffee to go, and dash for campus, hoping to make your lecture on time. Well, if you were part of the College of Engineering Distance Learning Initiative, offered through the department of electrical and computer engineering, you could skip the third step.

Instead, you settle in at a company workstation to attend your course. You see the actual class as it is being conducted at the BU campus in a window on a computer. You click on your Web browser and download your homework assignments and the recommended reading posted at the course's Web site. If you have a question, you call or e-mail the instructor in the BU classroom and see and hear the response on your computer.

John Brackett, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of BU's test-phase Distance Learning Initiative, says this user-friendly way of reaching corporate students is made possible by a new combination of technologies. "BU is the first university to utilize the technology of live digital satellite broadcast [from the classroom via satellite to the rooftop of the remote location] to corporations for educational purposes," he says. "What we're using is neither two-way video nor a broadcast system alone."

A close relative of DirecTV technology (the arrangement whereby an 18-inch rooftop digital satellite dish receives all kinds of television broadcasts), the Distance Learning System replaces DirecTV with the Hughes DirecPC service, which uses a direct broadcast satellite and a special DirecPC receiving dish. The dish is then linked by cable to a computer, and an Internet connection completes the setup.

Brackett, who spent 18 years in the industrial practice of software engineering and in teaching at the Wang Institute for Graduate Studies before joining BU in 1987, has been researching this system for some time. "My interest is in how one can provide a relevant, up-to-date graduate education to students in industry," he says. "It has been demonstrated that these students will seek such an education much more readily if it comes to them directly."

The technology benefits more than just the individual student, according to Bahaa Saleh, chairman of the department of electrical and computer engineering. "This type of system furthers the department's interest in a closer relationship with industry, in connecting industrial and on-campus students. It's part of our mission to have a closer link with the companies that will become our graduates' employers."

The University has been exploring ways of teaching corporate or otherwise distant students for some time, says Brackett. In 1985 BU created Corporate Classroom, which delivered courses to local industry using television technology. Corporate Classroom enrolled about 700 students a year for at least one course.

"Although the program was economically successful, the system had limitations," says Brackett. In 1994 an ENG committee started to search for a new technological approach that would increase the geographical coverage of the system to enable companies further afield than Route 495 (Corporate Classroom's outer boundary) to receive broadcasts, as well as use the Internet as an integral part of distance learning.

Around that time ENG's department of manufacturing engineering bega