OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

New system major advance in web education

06/10/1999

CORVALLIS - The K-12 teachers of Oregon are now using a Web-based program for continuing education that its creators at Oregon State University say could become a model for professional development not only in education, but many other public and private fields as well.

Using a sophisticated "relational database," the program can provide individualized educational offerings to students at remote times and locations. But it also learns from the student what approach they like best, how they learn best and custom tailors the interaction to suit their preferences.

It's like having an outstanding teacher helping just you, one-on-one, patiently providing the lessons however you like them, and staying up to work into the wee hours if that's what you prefer.

And it's a major step forward for OSU's institutional commitment to lifelong learning opportunities for its alumni and other students, officials say.

"Today we're using this system to provide Oregon's K-12 teachers some of the highest quality, most personalized educational offerings anywhere in the world," said Mark Merickel, an assistant professor in the OSU School of Education. "But in the near future there's no reason this approach couldn't be used by business, industry, and other public agencies. We're ready to expand right now."

Part of what makes this "Professional Development System" so useful, Merickel said, is the way it's been designed to work hand-in-hand with state licensing and regulatory agencies. It's been designed to meet the standards set by the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, but conceptually could work just as well with almost any regulatory body or the quality control needs of a private business.

Continuing education and professional development, Merickel said, is rapidly becoming a fact of life for practically every profession as the knowledge base expands rapidly and old skills or approaches become outdated in surprisingly short times.

But the needs and problems facing working adults - family, work, remote locations, social and personal commitments - have made attaining the needed education more difficult than ever, Merickel said. Helping to fill that void, to some extent, have been computers and remote learning programs. But the opportunities they provide have also been criticized for poor quality or loss of the personal touch.

"We developed some of the first Web courses as much as five years ago, and in general people were pleased with their quality," Merickel said. "But this system now is far more sophisticated and is really making remote education an effective way to teach and learn."

Oregon teachers are using the new system to get the "professional development units," or graduate credits they now need for retaining their licensure, Merickel said, and can custom design the program to fit their own needs and circumstances. "Modules" for professional development can be broken down into even smaller, more specific tasks, and a teacher can work at something for three hours or three weeks, as needed. At every step the system can help ensure the plan will meet regulatory or licensing requirements.

When they log in to the system, the computer picks up wherever they left off. Students can interact with questions, provide short answers, work at their own speed, get routine feedback from teachers, get involved in discussion groups, participate in chat rooms, access streaming audio or video, and create a portfolio of their work.

"In some ways a student can actually get more one-on-one interaction with their teachers and other students through this approach than you will find in most traditional classroom settings," Merickel said. "I think at this point it's safe to say that Web-based education is neither better nor worse than traditional classes. It's just different. And it's available to anyone, anytime, anywhere."

Merickel said he hopes to make the new system available to all of the schools and colleges at OSU to use for their own continuing education offerings and work with alumni. And since it's Web based, the program can easily transcend international boundaries to help OSU's thousands of foreign alumni now working around the world.

"We've also tailored this system to provide pathways to earning teaching certificates for people who already have bachelor's degrees but want to become licensed to teach in a K-12 setting," Merickel said. "There's a growing need for K-12 teachers, especially in many remote areas, and we already have a dozen students from Coos Bay to Portland getting certified through this program."

Anyone interested in more information about the new system may access it on the Web at: http://pds.orst.edu. Other public agencies or businesses that wish to find how it may be applied to their needs may contact Merickel at (541) 737-5958.