Thomas Edison State College is looking to accelerate the deployment of a new course delivery system that uses USB drives loaded with entire courses and associated applications to help students complete the work online.
The online college launched its first generation of flash drive-based of-line courses, known as FlashTrack courses, last spring as a pilot program for about 100 students. Now, it's preparing to offer dozens of courses to all of its 17,000 students who attend the school.
FlashTrack courses are designed to increase accessibility and minimize technical issues for adults earning a college degree, according to officials at the school. Thomas Edison State recently received a two-year, $250,000 federal grant to expand the program.
“It was really originally intended for students in most extreme circumstances, like students [in the Navy] serving on submarines for months on end,” said Matt Cooper, an instructional technology specialist at Thomas Edison.
The college now plans to use the grant, awarded by the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), to develop 40 courses over the next two years that will be delivered entirely via flash drives. The drives offer the functionality of the college's typical 12-week, asynchronous online courses, without the need for a continuous online connection.
Thomas Edison College said its use of flash drives to deliver course content differs from schools that use iPods, cell phones and other flash-enabled devices in that it delivers the entire course on the device — not just parts of a course such as a lecture.
Students attending Thomas Edison will need an Internet connection only to submit assignments and participate in online discussions. The remainder of course work can be completed offline, Cooper said.
While students can download course material to any flash-based device, the college also offers the information on 2GB drives. Cooper said the college will charge a “small” fee for the device.
The flash drives will include not only lectures, book assignments and other course materials but also applications such as BlackBoard, a Web-based course-management system, AbiWord, a word processing program, or an open-source media player so students can listen to lectures and see presentations.
“You can take the courses from different computers and the USB drive won't leave any trace data behind and applications don't need to be installed on the host computer,” he said.
The school is also in talks with publishing companies to include on the drives any books that may be required for course work.
Dr. Henry van Zyl, the college's vice provost of Directed Independent Adult Learning, said that the platform-independent system is expected to help eliminate most of the technical glitches that students taking online courses experience, such as those caused by upgrades to learning management systems and software compatibility issues.
“I think what we are doing is revolutionizing course delivery methods in higher education,” he said in a statement. “We are going to be able to reach a level of flexibility and access that is unprecedented, and that goes beyond recreating the online experience in an offline setting.”