Historian Richard Hovannisian is hardly a high-tech guy. The UCLA professor is completing a four-volume history of the Republic of Armenia--on a typewriter. A self-described "computer dumbo," he is just getting the hang of e-mail.
But this week, Hovannisian stepped into the future, becoming the first UCLA professor to teach in a "teleclassroom." The subject was Armenian history, but the setting was pure Hollywood: Under the glare of studio lights, Hovannisian talked about the Ottoman Empire as two video cameras followed his every move.
Nearly 100 miles away at UC Santa Barbara, Hovannisian appeared on a 35-inch television monitor in a classroom that was virtually empty because heavy rains had overwhelmed the campus.
"Santa Barbara, you want to say anything?" Hovannisian asked at one point, addressing his question to a TV monitor that displayed the satellite classroom. When a UCSB student answered--with a bashful "I don't know"--his classmates in Los Angeles heard him loud and clear.
Next week, Hovannisian's class will include students not only from UC Santa Barbara, but also UC Berkeley. It is one of the University of California's first experiments with so-called "distance learning"--an application of teleconferencing that is being touted around the country as a revolutionary way to expand access to specialized courses.
Particularly as budget shortfalls threaten higher education funding, colleges and universities across the nation have turned to this type of technology in hopes of teaching more students with less money.
In California, community colleges have employed distance learning since the 1970s, and the California State University system has been experimenting with the concept for several years.
"We know the bond money is not out there to build more campuses. And we also know tens of thousands of students are coming down the pike," said Steve Daigle, a senior research associate in the information, resources and technology division of the Cal State system chancellor's office. "With the newer telecommunications technologies coming on line, it's just prudent planning to see how they can be integrated."
The UC system has been slower to get involved. Its first distance learning course was offered last term--a philosophy course taught at UC Riverside and UC Irvine. UCLA has used teleconferencing since 1985 to give students access to occasional guest speakers in different cities, but until this week it had never put its own professors on the air.
Given Gov. Pete Wilson's call this week for increased productivity in public higher education, however, UCLA's experiment could not be better timed.
"This is about cost-effective education," Hovannisian said. "We're guinea pigs."
During his first class, the technology took a little getting used to. To make the experience in the faraway classrooms as much like the real thing as possible, technicians tried to capture interaction between Hovannisian and the UCLA students on camera and transmit those images to UCSB. But they were also displayed at UCLA, on color television monitors large enough to inspire self-consciousness--even in the professor.
"I saw the back of my head and how bald I've become," Hovannisian said with a smile.
At UCSB, the experience was similar. "It's a little strange to see ourselves on the screen. That's an unusual experience," said Nina Bakisian, a UCSB lecturer who attends the class as a facilitator. "But it became easier as it went along. It's almost like we're actually there."
The virtual classroom, as some refer to distance learning, is not without critics. Some worry that legislators, when given the option of a single, videotaped professor teaching throngs of students, will argue to cut funding because fewer faculty will be needed. Others worry that the use of technology may literally distance students from what they are studying, diminishing educational quality in the process.
Brian Copenhaver, provost of UCLA's College of Letters and Science, has heard the worries, but he says UC would be foolish not to try to apply the technology wisely. Just as the invention of printing transformed universities in the middle of the 15th Century by enabling students to buy books, he said, improvements in telecommunications will likely change what it means to go to college today.
"What we're doing is engaging and trying to use on behalf of our students a force that already exists," he said. "We don't plan on making this a substitute for the essential human contact."
To Hovannisian, it's a matter of access. Since he began teaching there in the mid-1960s, UCLA has been the only UC campus to offer Armenian history.
"I've had students who have transferred to UCLA from UC Berkeley for a year, just to take my class, and then transferred back," he said. "This kind of course obviates that need."