Virtual tours provide real world perspective for distance ed students

Submitted by Anna Rzewnicki on Wednesday Jul 23, 2014.

“There are lots of things that we do in personal finance that you really want more of a hands-on learning experience,” said Melissa Hart, lecturer in Poole College’s Department of Business Management, things like buying a car or a house, or deciding to open a franchise restaurant.

That real world aspect was missing from her personal finance course, which Hart normally teaches online through DELTA, NC State’s online course delivery platform.

When she was scheduled to teach a section of the course in the summer of 2013, Hart took advantage of the opportunity to refresh her teaching materials and to incorporate onsite visits to a car dealership, a house that was for sale, and a franchise restaurant. With her online students in mind, she arranged for DELTA’s camera crew to accompany her and her summer session students on the visits.

At each location, the students were able to talk with sales staff and managers, asking detailed questions about processes involved in their operations. All the while, their conversations were being recorded by the camera crew.

The real work, Hart said, came when the site visits were completed and it was time to edit each of the one hour-plus videos down to about 20 minutes, focusing on key points in the discussions at each site.

While Hart has incorporated recorded presentations of guest speakers for her distance ed presentations in the past, recording the on-site visits “was a way to take us into that environment,” she said.

At Bobby Murray Chevrolet, for example, the students were able to “walk around, look at the cars, and ask the hard questions with the camera running, questions like, ‘What should we be thinking about when we think of pricing, and are the warranties really worth it?’ The students and the sales people both were very candid,” Hart said.

To provide insight about buying a house, Hart worked with Aimee Anderson of Aimee Anderson & Associates who arranged for the students to visit an unoccupied house that was on the market.

Anderson took the students on a tour of the house and discussed specific issues about it. The house was on a beautiful lot on a golf course, but had been a rental for five years and needed some work, Hart said. “So, she talked about the decision process that a buyer would go through in assessing the house as a possible purchase: things that could and should be overlooked, like paint and new doorknobs, and the harder things, like a dated kitchen – What’s the cost there?,” she said.

The real estate agent talked the students through the full process, from walking through the door of the property to the details of the closing.

The third site visit was to the Jersey Mike’s Sub Shop on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, N.C., a franchise business owned by a father and a son. The students learned how franchises operate – for example, the requirement that décor and operations be consistent at each location. “You can’t change the menu or the decorations,” Hart said. The students were able to discuss with the franchisees the idea of owning their own business, and the “glory and limitations” of a franchise.

“Could that same information have been brought into the classroom (by a guest speaker)? Yes, but not in that way,” Hart said.

“The (summer session) students really liked the opportunity to go on site but what I also wanted was for the future distance education students to have a similar experience; that is the essence of what I was trying to get for them. It went very well,” she said.

“In personal finance, we talk about stocks and bonds and mutual funds, but then we also have this other element of alternative investments and that opens the door to everything from a bar of gold or a business as part of your retirement plan,” she said.

In the case of the franchise owners, the father, Rich Domanski, owned additional franchise operations, and the one that the students visited was being managed by the son, Matt, Hart said. “Matt had worked at other franchises before and was able to evolve into this sort of partnership with his father. It was a way for the father to pass assets on and get his son started in the business.”

Turning the recorded onsite visits into virtual field trips also provided a new connection for Hart with her online students – who are “all over the world.” While they could not meet her at a local car dealership, they could have a similar experience through the video segments.

Not all her students are all that distant, though. Some select the distance education option to provide more flexibility in their schedules. As a result, she said she does have students stop her in Nelson Hall saying that they are in her online class but she couldn’t recognize them. “One got off a bus and said, ‘I’m in your online class; I can’t believe I’m seeing you; I always see you on my computer screen.’”


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