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Going The Distance

by Sheila Smith Noonan

Distance education at UMDNJ used to mean commuting between campuses. Now, with video teleconferencing capabilities and a web site, NJDS is at the forefront of a movement toward high technology dental education and information.

Video teleconferencing can have many applications at the school, says Dr. Cheryl L. Biber ('78), of the Office of Planning and Assessment's Division of Educational Technologies. "The potential here is limited only by your imagination. The technology allows you to create classrooms without walls. Meetings, sharing of resources between institutions, consultations, and even remote supervision of procedures can be done through teleconferencing," she says. "The technology is not what drives distance education­needs do." Case presentations and even patient consultations, for example, could be accomplished using a document camera for x-rays, study models and photographs, and intraoral cameras for real-time viewing.

The school's Community Oriented Dental Education (CODE) program will be the first to benefit from video teleconferencing, says Dr. Biber. Senior students at different sites in New Jersey will no longer have to make the weekly commute to Newark for a full day of lectures. "The students won't have to travel, and the lectures can be split into an hour or two hours a day." After three years of experience with this technology at a New York City hospital/community health center-based residency training program, Dr. Biber looks forward to implementing video teleconferencing at NJDS.

Video teleconferencing has the potential to catch on at NJDS the way it has at the School of Health Related Professions (SHRP), the first UMDNJ school to incorporate the technology. Dr. Riva Touger-Decker, who has teaching appointments at both schools, first used video teleconferencing in 1995 with the master's of science clinical nutrition program at SHRP. Today, the technology is used each day of the week by many SHRP programs.

"Video teleconferencing allows a program to be expanded without increasing the number of courses, creating the opportunity to reach more people simultaneously," she says. "It's ideal for collaboration and conferences. Visuals are excellent because you can show x-rays, papers, and pictures and are not limited to a slide, overhead, or computer projector."

While video teleconferencing provides what Dr. Biber refers to as synchronous learning, the school's web site will enable users to access information whenever they choose. "You can encourage small group synchronous learning by establishing moderated chat rooms," Dr. Biber says. "If an instructor wants to discuss a subject at a certain time, students can be e-mailed with directions for participating in a chat room." Like video teleconferencing, the school's web site will be versatile. "First of all, we want college students to know that NJDS is a great dental school. Virtual brochures, lecture notes, and even continuing dental education courses will be available on the Web," says Dr. Biber. With the latter, a course could be posted for a week, and dentists could take the class at their convenience­when a patient cancels an appointment, for example. The web site will also provide a forum for faculty to share research interests with colleagues at other institutions.

Both technologies­video teleconferencing and the Internet­offer endless opportunities for learning and sharing of information at NJDS. And while there are challenges to using a new educational medium­moderating a multipoint classroom and adjusting to being "on camera," for example­Dr. Touger-Decker says the advantages are far greater than any disadvantages. "These technologies save time and resources, and yet there's one potential drawback­it's hard to have virtual food," she says.

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