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Education learns how to use new technologies

Education at a distance gains wider perspectives

At the beginning of April, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the most prestigious teaching and research institutions in the United States, announced that it was starting a program, with investments of US$ 100 million, to put the whole of the content of its 2,000 courses onto the Internet, in the course of ten years. That is to say, anybody will have free access, from any part of the world, to what is taught on the institute’s premises, in the metropolitan area of Boston. Those who are interested will not be able to use the system to get a diploma. But a student at MIT needs to pay an average of US$ 26,000 a year to follow one of these same courses.

This is not a tremendous novelty. Other teaching institutions are already offering similar programs, although not in such a widespread manner and without the international prestige that is attached to the name of the MIT. In Brazil, the Institute of Advanced Studies, of the University of São Paulo (USP), has the Cidade do Conhecimento (City of Knowledge) project, whose purpose is to create a network on which people from high school, the universities and the professional world will be able to produce knowledge publicly and collectively.

“The networks are experiencing exponential growth and are being used in an increasingly sophisticated way”, comments Imre Simon, who teaches at the Department of Computing Sciences of the Institute of Mathematics and Statistics, at the University of São Paulo (USP), whose central information technology commission he presided between 1994 and 1998. “But there are areas where its use is still in its infancy. This applies to education. The problem there is making the information available, that is, who is going to pay to put the information on the web. It is a complex issue.”

Another way
If there is one area where the problems involving teaching over networks are few, it is among the students. “Information technology is already a part of the lives of this generation”, says the director of USP’s Institute of Chemistry, Paulo Sérgio Santos. He has already heard time after time: “Professor, don’t do it like that, it’s not going to work, do it another way, like this”. The Chemistry Institute is now getting ready to replace the initial laboratory lessons by computer simulations. The simulations are not going to replace the practical classes in the laboratory. But the teachers hope that the students will approach them much better prepared, when the time comes to carry out real experiments.

Experiments are being carried out in various places. At USP’s Institute of Physics in São Carlos, several teachers are using teleconferencing or tele-education techniques in their classes. The first test was to carry out a joint six month course for students in Physics and in Computing, involving teachers from the two areas. “The course left the students and teachers convinced that the system is viable and advantageous when it is a matter of integrating distant institutions”, states Professor Antônio Carlos Ruggiero, responsible for installing USP’s network in São Carlos.

The teachers also learned a lot from the practical side of the course. In the course of the lesson, for example, a camera has to be kept focused exclusively on the blackboard. “If the camera focuses the teacher and the blackboard at the same time, the image on a 29-inch TV screen will not allow the pupil to read what is being written”, says Ruggiero. So the problem is sorted out by keeping the camera zoomed on the blackboard, while the teacher appears in the corner of the screen, so that his expression can be seen.

Defending a thesis
Another test carried out in São Carlos followed the defense of a thesis for a doctorate. For legal reasons, the three members of the examining board had to be present on the spot. But a reserve examiner and a small audience could follow all of the work at a distance. It is not impossible for the idea to evolve. Connected by the network, the professors would no longer need to travel to take part in examination boards outside their own cities. Ruggiero thinks that the legislation could well change to make this possible. “There are many advantages”, he states.

The number of experiments is building up. At Unesp in Botucatu, the Faculty of Medicine intends to start courses on which the presence of the pupil in the classroom will be waived, before the end of the year. The idea came up at the Center of Studies in Poisons of Venomous Animals (Cevap), a body with wide experience in electronic publishing. Since 1995, the center has been publishing an electronic magazine on poisonous animals, available on CD-ROM and on its site,

To begin with, three courses will be offered, Snake Poisoning, Tetanus, and Vaccines. The pupil will receive a kit with a videotape, a CD-ROM and a book, material that is now ready for distribution. The student will follow the course from wherever he wishes. Teachers will be on duty between certain times, to clear up doubts over the internal network or the Internet, and they may also be consulted by e-mail. The CD-ROM, in turn, will contain links to sites on the Internet where, according to the teachers, the students will be able to get reliable information.

Previous experience
Benedito Barravieira, Unesp’s deputy rector for adult education and Professor of the Department of Tropical Diseases and Diagnosis by Image of the School and of Medicine in Botucatu, says that the work is just an extension of an experience that has been working out well. For several years, he has been handing out similar kits to his students, and does not make a point of their physical presence, obligatorily, at all his classes.”The pupil comes to the faculty prepared to discuss the subject in the classroom, to clear up doubts and to do the exams”, he says. He see plenty of advantages in the system: besides the pupil being able to arrange his study times to suit him best, he also can count on the multimedia resources of the material, like illustrations and animation capable of facilitating the learning process.

The professor gives an example. In a conventional lesson on tetanus, he takes about 40 minutes to explain how the toxin acts on the human body, from its point of entry, usually a wound on the foot, until it takes root. “I have to explain how the bacillus splits, multiplies, produces the toxin, and affects the nervous system”, he states. “In a system with animation, it is possible to show this in 40 seconds and, furthermore, the student can repeat the animation on the CD-ROM as many times as he wants, until the sequence is memorized.”

Barravieira says that t is not only the pupil who benefits from the use of networks. It also helps the teacher, who can now control his time better. “Instead of spending hours repeating the same lessons, I make better use of the time, discussing the subject in depth with the pupils, or doing research into novelties, which is much more interesting and profitable”, is his opinion. “This may be the beginning of a revolution in the teaching of Medicine”, he goes on. ” The system may soon be applied to graduate courses as well.”

The professor makes it clear, nevertheless, that the system must only be used in teaching theory. “No one is thinking of educating a doctor at a distance”, he concedes. “No student is going to be capable of operating unless he has had practical lessons in surgical operations, but there is nothing to stop him from studying surgical techniques in his own home.” Barravieira goes on: “It is not just a question of convenience. Medicine is evolving and the quantity of information has grown a lot over recent years. Even so, the courses in Medicine last as long as they did in the 50s, that is, six years. Unless we find faster means for transmitting information, we will lose content.”