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Distance Learning in Your Pocket

New Jersey based Thomas Edison State College has come up with an innovative approach to its online education classes that is designed for students who are constantly in motion. Like most online schools, Thomas Edison usually releases class material for any given course one class at a time via the internet. Students view them or download them and proceed with the class work; at the end of the semester they take a thorough, do-or-die exam.

Edison administrators were finding that many of their students were of necessity on the go constantly and were having difficulty accessing their classes on a timely basis. The solution is flash drives that are loaded with the individual classes for an entire course.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the 2GB flash drives are an introductory component of the school's Mobile Learning Initiative, a program developed for their students in the military who may have limited internet access and the civilian students who are always on the move.

"When you have students who are constantly on the go, online courses can be a challenge," says Matt C. Cooper, an instructional-technology specialist at the college and one of the course designers. "We tried experimenting with a CD-ROM, but it didn't work. They break, they get lost -it's' static media. That offers a lot of problems."

The college has kicked off the pilot program with fifteen classes, including one course that's part of a regimen for business administration degrees. Each flash drive includes Open Office versions of a word processing application, a spreadsheet application a presentations program and a media player, along with a folder for each class. These tools allow the student to view the course material and complete any assignments in the appropriate format. The multimedia options provide great latitude; one of the courses - a class related to public health degrees - involves the socialization aspects of gerontology, a presentation that would challenging without the use of video.

The next step, according to the college, is distributing the flash players to every student this fall. The goal is to program the memory units to connect to a class folder on the college server and automatically download completed course assignments whenever it detects an internet connection.

The school is looking at additional communications technology and support devices for future versions of their mobile distance learning modules. As it is, says Mr. Cooper, a student could theoretically complete an entire course while on board a submerged submarine, assuming there is internet access at some point.

It's a great innovation, and very likely one that would be stalled for years if it had been conceived by a traditional school's curriculum and instruction professionals and was subject to board, committee, or faculty approval. For the educators at Thomas Edison it's just another recording device, one that offers more convenient communication with the students.

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