June 08, 2004

SIUC developing distance learning course in aquaculture

by K.C. Jaehnig

Way down in Little Egypt, they're hatching a different kind of fish school.

"We thought if we could do some type of certification course where people could learn aquaculture on their own time, this would be a great service," said Susan T. Kohler, associate director of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Office of Economic and Regional Development.

"We've been involved with writing business plans for fish farmers for several years now but have found that bankers are sometimes reluctant to write loans for them. They want to know that these farmers know what they're doing. Certification would give the bankers and other funding agencies a little more confidence."

To offer the course, Kohler and her staff will rely on distance learning, which uses everything from satellites and cable TV to e-mail and the Internet to help instructors in one place teach students in a host of others.

"The technology has been out there for a while," said Daniel A. Selock, who put together the first eight classes in what will eventually be a 16-class course.

"Extension offices have used it to teach courses on cattle, hogs and chickens, and Shawnee Community College has done a little with prawns, but this is the first time distance learning has been used in Illinois for aquaculture in general, and the first time it's been done on this large a scale."

Kohler had been toying with the idea of a distance-learning class for some time, but when Cortney L. Ohs, a young freshwater prawn expert from Mississippi, joined the staff in September, she decided it was time to move ahead. She'd put Ohs in charge of figuring out how to make the technology work for the course when she got a request from the aquaculture extension specialist at Purdue University for some classes on freshwater prawns and hybrid striped bass.

"It was that request that gave us a reason to try out what we'd done," Selock said.

Working with SIUC's instructional support services staff, Ohs and Selock polished up two hour-long lectures and then arranged live transmission to Purdue, which beamed it to 28 farmers in 12 locations around the state.

"It was high-quality, live video and interactive, all in real time," Ohs said.

"I couldn't see all 12 locations at once, but whenever someone would speak up, the camera would go to that location."

Ohs said the next steps in developing the course involve lining up lecturers and getting their classes on videotape; developing handouts and other class materials; determining how to give exams on line; setting up a Web site to handle such details as enrollments; and arranging for sites with interactive connections to show the lectures.

"Right now, we're thinking county extension offices or community colleges, but someday in the future, with the right computer technology, fish farmers would be able to sit in their bathrobes and slippers and learn about water quality in their living room at 3 a.m.," Selock said.

If they land a USDA grant to help fund the project, the course could be ready by fall, Kohler said.

"We see this as a good way to supplement the aquaculture activities going on in the state now -- and a way of extending our reach," she said.

"We have the facilities, expertise and staff to play a vital role in aquaculture extension in this region."

Reaching out is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.