College dean adds human touch to distance education

Douglas E. Hersh, dean of educational programs and technology at Santa Barbara City College, believes video technology might hold the key to solving an old problem that has plagued distance education since its beginnings, USA Today reports: the retention gap. Hersh believes that one major reason students are more likely to drop out of online programs than traditional ones is the lack of human touch in distance-ed programs. His solution is to incorporate more video into the course-delivery mechanism. Most professors who teach online already incorporate short video and audio clips into their courses, according to a 2009 survey by the Campus Computing Project. But it is rarer, Hersh says, for professors to use video of themselves to teach or interact with their online students—largely because the purveyors of major learning-management systems do not orient their platforms to feature that method of delivery. That’s why Hersh convinced Santa Barbara in 2008 to abandon Blackboard in favor of Moodle’s open-source platform, which he used to build the “Human Presence Learning Environment.” The interface is designed so professors can deliver lessons and messages using videos recorded with a webcam. It also shows students who among their instructors or classmates are logged into Skype, the video-chat service, in case they want to have a live, face-to-face conversation. Hersh says he is talking with other California community colleges to adopt the platform and will gladly give it away to any other institutions that want to use it…

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