News Index

July 12, 2002

Online with global coastal policy

Computer technology adds more than content to political science course.

Steffen Schmidt faced a dilemma.

He wanted to offer a course on global costal policy during the summer, yet he didn't want it to be a standard course held in an Ames classroom, far from either coast.

Schmidt immediately thought of offering an online version of the course, allowing students from throughout the world to take part. Even then though he wasn't quite sure how to proceed.

"The normal distance learning course may include a PowerPoint presentation and some audio," the University Professor of political science said. "I wanted something a little different."

The class, "The Policy and Politics of Coastal Areas" was just that. Offered completely on the World Wide Web, it was developed and taught by Schmidt. Forty students took the course, which was offered through ISU Extension, logging on in California, Washington, Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, South Carolina, Minnesota, and Nebraska, in addition to current Iowa State students.

"One student even managed to get access to a computer and completed some of the coursework while she was on a research trip in the South Pacific," Schmidt said.

The first half of the course covered how coastal areas are formed by nature and the impact of humans on these areas. Students learned about controversies over land use, constitutional issues regarding access to the beach, techniques for reconstruction of beaches, and debates about development vs. preservation.

The remainder of the course examined global coastal and oceanic issues in various areas of the world, including the Black Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, Belize and the Marshall Islands.

While the content may have been normal, Schmidt's method of delivery of the material was anything but.

"When you teach courses online there is a very big psychological barrier because we're used to face to face contact both as an instructor and a student," he said.

Students accessing the course's web site were given day-by-day instructions of the course's content. Schmidt interspersed video clips throughout the month-long course.

"Since this was a course on coastal policy, I wanted the class to see me at the venue that I was lecturing on," he said.

Schmidt's videos placed him at different locations along the coasts. He also edited in footage from other coastal sites. Another video was shot when Schmidt was airing his "Dr. Politics" show on WOI-AM at a remote location at Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Fla. An avid scuba diver and ocean sailor, Schmidt is an associate of that university.

"Most of the content for that show was appropriate to the coastal politics course including a special guest," he said.

"In all these videos I made an effort to add a little bit more value to the course that you can't get in a normal classroom lecture. The students got to see their instructor in different situations."

Through the web site, a discussion forum was developed that students were required to participate in. Students posted comments on ten different topics related to the course.

"I wanted them to have the same dialogue as they would have in a normal classroom," Schmidt said.

Those discussions tended to bring additional conversations about the course from students that Schmidt didn't expect.

"I knew a couple of the students who took the course and while they are excellent students they tend to be somewhat shy and wouldn't speak up in the previous classes I had with them," he said. "Here they had very complicated points that they made on the web that they probably would never would have made in a face-to-face situation."

Schmidt shot and edited the footage himself with some assistance from current Iowa State students and staff members including Doug Bull in zoology/genetics and student Loren Porter. The course was marketed by Catherine Hunt of Continuing Education and Communication Services. Schmidt streamed the video on the web.
He readily admits that the preparation for the first version of the coastal politics course is much more than for a normal classroom course.

"Whenever I travel someplace related to this course, I had to be prepared to take along my equipment and have my lectures prepared in advance," he said. "While it's a lot of preparation, I think the videos and most of the footage I have will have a good shelf life."

Despite the amount of work involved, Schmidt is looking forward to continually push the envelope in distance learning.

"Not every topic is suited for distance learning," he said, "but many of these type of courses hold a great advantage over a normal classroom setting."