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Duke finds virtual classrooms teach communication

February 12, 1999
Web posted at: 6:54 p.m. EST (2354 GMT)

by Jessica Davis


(IDG) -- Duke University first explored the idea of offering a distance-learning program because it wanted to reach out to the global market and attract a diverse group of students. Now that it has established a global network of students, the university sees that its virtual classroom fosters crucial communication and remote management skills that would be difficult to learn otherwise.

"It's important to the faculty to have interactions with people outside of the U.S.," says John Gallagher, director of computer-mediated learning at Duke, who also served as director of IT at the program's inception. "And we also actually believe that this is going to be the paradigm for education beginning now and into the future."

Duke's Global Executive Masters of Business Administration program, or GEMBA, may be the most remarkable of all of its classes due to its around-the-clock operation, international student body, and the experience that its students bring to each other.The course, priced at approximately $85,000, is structured around a 20-month, five-semester program that takes its students on five two-week residential courses around the world.

To offer students superior around-the-clock service and operations in all time zones, the university set up redundant servers, redundant Internet connections, and on-call support staff.Originally, this state-of-the-art distance-learning program ran on a single server -- a workstation running Windows 95. The machine was in the office of one of the staff members and the faculty of the GEMBA program would come into the office during the weekend to make sure it

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Duke then hired John Kent as infrastructure director for the University's Fuqua School of Business to shore up the computing infrastructure. "We ramped up to more of an enterprise server environment, starting by building a room by tearing out walls and floors and adding UPS equipment," Kent says. "We migrated all the content onto new servers -- IBM Netfinity redundant servers."

To make sure the system stayed up 24 hours per day, Kent rolled out a series of monitoring tools and established an on-call process for his staff. "We had to become a production shop with global time zones involved," Kent says. The network monitoring systems page staff members if anything goes wrong. GEMBA students can also call the support desk at any time, which triggers a page to a staff member.

Students access the GEMBA servers over the Internet from their GEMBA-issued Windows NT-equipped IBM ThinkPads, selected for their international support. The laptops are pre-loaded with all of the required software -- including preconfigured communication, country-specific software versions, and other customized installations. "If one student is unable to get online, it cripples that student's team and puts the whole course in jeopardy," Gallagher says.

Students are also issued five pieces of communications software that are cornerstones of the course's success. They are asynchronous bulletin boards on Netscape's CollabraShare server; chat rooms available on Internet Relay Chat (IRC); Mirabilis' ICQ instant messaging; e-mail; and Microsoft's NetMeeting. "One of the startling findings for me working with these students is that they feel closer to us and the school than our resident students do," Gallagher says.

For example, students can create bulletin boards for a team project and add to those on their own time. When a project reaches a point where a meeting is necessary, the group can set up a chat room on IRC. And if one student is up late at night, he or she can see if others are also on the system by checking the "buddy" list on ICQ and sending instant messages.

"It's like running into each other in the hall or seeing other people at the library," Gallagher says. "You are reminded when you go online that you are not alone." That is important in a world of multinational companies and international corporate partnerships.

"One very important secondary set of skills people learn is how to manage a large-scale project with a globally distributed team, usually made up of people from different cultures and different countries," Gallagher says. "You have to identify issues, resolve conflicts, and operate as a team while separated by time and space. There are people skills that have to be manifested while working through this kin

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