Tony Gravette guides his avatar through JSU Island in Second Life. (Jacksonville News/Anita Kilgore photo)
Distance Ed at JSU Growing
By: Jennifer Bacchus
News staff writer
Just as Jacksonville State University's overall enrollment hit a high this fall with 9,481 students, its distance education program also hit a record with 3,234 students.
Most of those students are Alabamians, 2,400 of them, but the numbers of students outside the state and even outside of the southern United States can be impressive.
There are 25 Virginians who take the distance education classes and another 25 from Texas. Nine of the students live in other countries. In all, there is at least one student from 46 of the 50 states and one in the District of Columbia.
"We're reaching the audience that we want to reach. Many of our students are non-traditional students. They would not be able to come to JSU physically because they are employed, they have children, young children, at home or they live out of the immediate area," said Dr. Frank King, the associate Vice President for Distance Education at JSU. "If it was not for this, they would not be able to attend."
JSU has 145 courses offered completely online and every class they offer has the ability to have course documents or presentations given to the students through the school's Blackboard system.
"We've impacted virtually every program on campus," said King, adding that every course on campus has a Blackboard shell allowing the teachers to interact online with their students, even for the traditional classroom-based courses. "We leave it strictly up to the instructor how they use this. It works very well with a traditional class. If you want to put some of the information you want students to access online, if you would like to use it for testing purposes you can do that."
Though the classes offer their students and teachers the flexibility to work anywhere there is an Internet connection, the courses themselves are not a walk in the park.
"There's so many bogus programs out there, but our program, by order of Dr. Turner, has to be high-quality and it is, it's difficult and the requirements are much the same as an on-campus course," said Dr. Lawson Veasey of the political science and public administration department at JSU. The Master of Public Administration degree offered by Veasey's department has six of its eight concentrations available online.
Though the university is already utilizing much of the technology available with the podcasts professors are able to send to students, videoconferencing where a class can have a guest lecturer from across the country and courses that are taught via presentations on a CD or DVD, they are also looking toward the future.
In September of this year, JSU bought an island in Second Life, an online three-dimensional community. Bibb Graves has already been constructed there and two other campus fixtures, Merrill Building and the Houston Cole Library, are under construction.
This piece of virtual real estate opens up a wealth of new possibilities to the school both as a marketing tool to draw in new students and an educational one, since it is possible to hold class there.
The classroom has already been built on a platform overlooking the sea. It is, after all, on an island.
"It's a multi-media thing. We can download presentations. We can talk to students, you can talk to them through chat," said Tony Gravette, Director of Audio-Visual Services at JSU. "It's completely multimedia as well as three-dimensional."
Gravette is currently JSU Island's only "construction worker," though he believes the Second Life project would be a wonderful teaching tool for computer students and he would love to get the faculty involved in the creation of this virtual campus.
In Gravette's mind's eye he can envision those professors having offices in Second Life with office hours allowing a student to visit them and ask questions even if the student doesn't have the time or ability to come onto campus. He sees virtual events taking place on the quad behind Bibb Graves and lectures broadcast from the real Houston Cole Library into the virtual one.
"If nothing else, this is the greatest communication toll I've ever seen," said Gravette.
To introduce the campus community to all this new world has to offer, Gravette created a video for You Tube, which can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sctMcC5Fu0.