As PA programs continue to develop nationwide, many established PA programs are beginning to consider how they can expand their program’s size. There are two distinct options to expand: increase class size or establish a distant campus.
Establishing a Distant Campus
Creating a distant campus does not mean developing a new PA program; it means expanding the geographic region of a currently accredited PA program. Though establishing a distant campus has been a bit slow in gaining popularity, applications to the ARC-PA for approval to expand through a distant campus have steadily increased over the years. Currently, there are sixteen PA programs with a “D” designation, meaning the PA program has approval to educate students on a distant campus.
Implementing Synchronized Distance Education: Challenges and Strategies
If expansion to a distant campus is an option for your PA program, here are a few challenges you may face when implementing synchronized distance education (SDE)—and a few strategies to overcome them.
Challenge: Technological Difficulties
In an SDE course, technology is an integral part of curriculum delivery and must be effectively managed. The SDE system must be sufficiently user-friendly and exceptionably reliable; it ought not be subject to frequent service interruptions.
Solution: Information Services
The Information Services (IS) department is a great resource for onsite experts in the proper use of such equipment. It is also imperative that equipment is regularly tested by IS. At the beginning of a course, an IS representative may be present to ensure the lecturer doesn’t experience any technological difficulties. IS services must remain readily available when classes are in session, so they are able to assistant with any technology breakdowns in a timely manner. A list of phone numbers with clear “emergency” contact instructions should also be posted near the podium for instructors to be able to reach an IS representative.
Challenge: Faculty Inexperienced with the Technology
Technology can be daunting for faculty, so the SDE system needs to be easy enough for faculty to learn without extraordinary effort.
Solution: Provide Training and Necessary Accessories
Because faculty must be fully prepared to deliver curriculum in an SDE setting, they need to be trained before it is time for them to teach. Training should guide them in developing teaching techniques for effectively delivering lecture material and facilitating student learning. This will allow the faculty to be comfortable when teaching in an SDE environment. (When classes are taught by adjuncts or guests, they, too, must be instructed how to use the system prior to their presentations; when they are going to present, this would be a specific time an IS representative should be present at the start of class.)
Faculty will also feel more comfortable in an SDE setting if they are equipped with and know how to use supplementary technologies, such as clickers, Sympodium, and document cameras. In addition, “mundane” technology should also be available, such as batteries, projector light bulbs, etc.
Challenge: Distant Campus Cohort Feels Marginalized
Though faculty may view the students as a single class split between two sites, it’s easy for students to consider themselves as separate classes; the distant cohort can easily feel marginalized.
Solution: Employ “SDE Etiquette”
Faculty who employ SDE etiquette may help students at the distant campus feel more united with the class. Such etiquette includes using a microphone, regardless of the instructor’s vocal volume. In an SDE classroom, the microphones in the ceiling are designed to pick up the audience, not the speaker at the podium. Consequently, a speaker without a microphone will not be heard as easily in the distant classroom. (Consider a mic with a clip, centered in the midline at neck level for an unobtrusive option.)
To further alleviate any feelings of marginalization, use a camera within both classrooms so the instructor can see the students in the other classroom and vice versa. This helps the students feel “seen” and known by the instructor, and it aids the instructor in seeing how the students are (or aren’t) absorbing the information. Instructors may need to measure out the space they can walk without moving outside of the camera’s range. Expectedly, camera angles and sound should be tested by each faculty member before their first class.
Unnecessary noise should also be avoided when possible. Students in both classrooms may need to be warned noises from shuffling papers, closing binders, and side conversations are all picked up by the ceiling microphones and amplified to the other classroom. This quickly creates an auditory distraction, which makes SDE more difficult.
Challenge: Audio Delays
In an SDE setting, audio delay can have a negative impact on both classrooms.
Solution: Train Instructors to Follow a “Wait Time”
When verbally interacting with students at the remote site, the instructor should wait a respectable amount of time before responding to a comment or answering a question. In addition, it is beneficial to students for faculty to repeat a question before providing the answer; this ensures both classes have heard the question and been given time to consider it.
Challenge: Students in the Distant Classroom Cannot See the Whiteboard/Blackboard
Blackboards and whiteboards are difficult to see in the remote classroom, creating a disadvantage for those students.
Solution: Utilize Technology that Fosters Equivalency
In an SDE classroom, technology simply must be used as much as possible. As mentioned, clickers, Sympodium, and document cameras are useful tools. Document cameras serve as a replacement for the traditional blackboard, allowing the instructor to draw diagrams or compile a list. In fact, a document camera or PowerPoint can equitably project materials in both classrooms, making the experience the same for all students. DVDs or YouTube videos also provide equal experiences on each campus.
Challenge: Students Aren’t Participating
With two campuses, students on the other campus have a greater opportunity to avoid participating.
Solution: Instructors Must Integrate Interactive Techniques
Using interactive teaching techniques is vital in an SDE setting; it encourages students in each classroom to participate and remain focused. Instructors may choose to use incomplete handouts that need to be filled in, invite the remote location to ask questions before the host location, or vary their focus during a lecture to keep each student involved. We also recommend using video clips, group work, interactive assignments, or even alternating instructors to keep both cohorts engaged with the material.
Challenge: Students Cannot Work Together from Separate Campuses
Due to the distance between the two classrooms, students in the host classroom are unable to work together with the students from the distant classroom.
Solution: Provide Group Homework and Use Online Tools
Group homework works extremely well in the SDE program; even when homework is not collected, it is useful in bonding students across multiple sites. BlackBoard can provide a platform for discussions among all students. Further, online services like Google Docs enables group collaboration and fosters a bonding experience for students from both campuses.
When possible, we suggest including occasions for all cohorts to come together, such as the White Coat Ceremony, service-learning opportunities, ceremonies, and so on. This fosters a sense of common purpose and helps unify the class.