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From Cyberspace to Dorm Space - Computer Technology to Strike UVa Students Where They Live

From Daily Progress
August 1, 1995

Since the days of quill pens and slide rules, universityprofessors have posted times on their office doors when students couldcome to chat or get help with a philosophical quandary.

But computers, inevitably, are about to change things.

Beginning in the fall, a handful of professors at theUniversity of Virginia will experiment with the latest technologicalmarvel: electronic "office hours."

Jorg Liebeherr, an assistant professor of computer science,and some of his students have designed a system that will allow ateacher to hold forth from his office in front of a computer terminal with a small video camera sitting on top. From theirdormitories, students perched before similarly bedecked terminals willbe able to see, hear and "talk" to him and to one another, with thehelp of the Internet.

"We are teaching students about technology, but the way we areteaching students is still in the last century," said the 33-year-oldLiebeherr.

Demonstrating the system last week, Liebeherr and hisassistants simulated what an office hour of the future might looklike: a teacher pulling up a lesson on the screen and drawing with amouse on a white "chalkboard."

Among the advantages over the old method, they said, are theability to involve more people at once, the ease of pulling text andpictures from computer files and perhaps most important for thestudents, the convenience of staying at home.

"I think students will like being able to do it in their owndorms," said Andy Booker, a 19-year-old electrical engineering majorwho is helping Liebeherr design the system.

"Being able to do it in your pajamas!" added another of thedesigners, Arvind Viswanathan, a 22-year-old computer science graduatestudent.

Liebeherr and a couple of English professors will begin usingthe system during the fall term, though he emphasized it would notentirely replace in-person visits. "This does not substitute theclassroom," he said. "It enhances it."

The initial experiment will be conducted with a few computersstationed in several dormitories. With the video cameras runningbetween $200 and $500 and computers costing several times as much, itmay be a while before all students are equipped to take advantage ofthe system.

But electronic office hours are only the beginning of whatLiebeherr plans as part of what he calls this "Grounds-wideTele-Tutoring System."

He will also begin videotaping some of his lectures this fall,which will be transferred to digitized video. The lectures could thenbe viewed in full by students at their computers or quickly called upduring electronic tutoring sessions to illustrate points.

Students from all over the university would eventually be ableto study together in computerized study groups, using the same basicprogram that runs the electronic office hours, he said.

In fact, Liebeherr envisions what he calls the "virtualclassroom," with students from all over the world sitting in front ofvideo equipped computers, a professor lecturing and drawing on thescreen and answering questions as if everyone were together in thesame room.

He sees benefits especially for students who for some reasonare unable to leave their homes.

"Someone could take one course at UVa, take one course at theUniversity of California at Berkeley and take an Italian class inRome," he said.

And how would universities figure out tuitions if studentsstarted customizing their course lists in that fashion?

"Let the registrar deal with that," Liebeherr said with asmile.


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