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From...
Industry Standard

The making of an online lecture

October 27, 1999
Web posted at: 9:51 a.m. EDT (1351 GMT)

by Todd Woody

(IDG) -- Professor David Ravetch is taking a meeting with his Hollywood producer.

Ravetch has driven to Christine Fugate's offices on Sunset Boulevard not to discuss a screenplay but an online accounting course. Fugate, a documentary filmmaker and former Warner Bros. executive, produces college classes for University Access, a Los Angeles startup that creates and distributes courses over the Internet for sale to individuals, colleges and corporations.

The company's other courses combine documentary-style videotapes of lectures with online assignments. Ravetch is helping to create University Access' first Web-only course.

Ravetch had been teaching accounting to undergraduates at UCLA for 18 years when the firm approached him about putting one of his courses online. Former TV exec Tom Geniesse, along with Alec Hudnut, an ex-McKinsey consultant, founded the company in 1996.

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"I've taught one class 51 times. It seemed like a nice new challenge to me," Ravetch says. "I said, 'You want me because I'm animated and funny, so you should come to my class and videotape me.' But that's not what they wanted to do."

Online teaching, in this case, means checking one's professorial ego at the door. Students will hear Ravetch's voice in the course, but there won't be any videos of him lecturing. Still, there are opportunities for his personality to come through in Principles of Accounting I.

Ravetch and Fugate wander over to a corner of a cavernous, sparsely furnished office to review a voice-over the professor has done for one of the course's "study breaks." Click on an icon of a steaming coffee cup, and you hear Ravetch indulging in some accountant humor. "Where do accountants shop for clothes? The GAAP." That's CPA lingo for Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.

Today, Fugate's team is working on Lesson 7. Earlier in the week, Ravetch taught the lesson to Fugate and Angela Jones, a University Access instructional designer who holds a Ph.D. in economics and is a former college professor.

"We wanted to get a sense of what can be done online, what can't, and what will be too expensive," explains Fugate, director of the 1997 P.O.V. documentary Tobacco Blues and other films.

Says Rob Tisinai, University Access' manager of instructional design: "We see how a professor teaches a course and how that can be transferred to the Web format. Sometimes that means the course comes out the same. Sometimes that means changing it to make it more entertaining and interactive."

To review Lesson 7, the team moves to a windowless conference room and contemplates a whiteboard filled with circles and arrows. The diagram represents how the lesson will be taught online. Ravetch sits at one end of a table with an accounting textbook and offers advice on how to ensure that the lesson's goals are met within the technological restraints of the Web.

"One of the challenges of this is having to script everything," he says. "Everything I do in class is being put under a microscope. It's good, as it's forcing me to rethink how I teach."

But the process can be tedious. Each component of the lesson must be plotted and timed. The team also must consider how the lesson relates to previous and subsequent lessons and how to integrate interactivity and multimedia features into the subject being taught.

"The thing we're fighting in distance learning is isolation," Fugate says. To give students a sense that they're part of an offline class, the team will incorporate discussion groups and collaborative projects into each course. A preview of the accounting class, which is set to debut next fall, features a mix of text, interactive lessons and video interviews with executives of companies that are studied. Individuals will be able to take the course through University Access or through colleges that purchase it for their online curriculums.

Ravetch will receive a fee for helping produce the course as well as royalties from its sale. "There's a lot of controversy in the halls of academia about distance learning, and there's fear that professors will have intellectual property taken away from them and exploited," says University Access founder Geniesse. "It's quite the opposite. They're our partners and will benefit from our success just as we will."


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