A unique distance education experience

Logistics engineering through the Internet: A unique distance education experience

Blanchard, Benjamin S


Historically, the offering of training courses and formal academic programs through various forms of distance education has been popular since the late 1960s, with significant growth occurring through the past several decades. The basic objective has been to deliver courses and academic programs to various remote locations in response to the needs of individuals who are actively employed in industrial and government organizations, who need to upgrade their respective skills. Most of these individuals are not able to spend time away from their place of employment and on the campus of an academic institution.

Distance education has, through the years, assumed various models including: (1) the teaching of courses by faculty traveling from their respective institutions to designated off-campus sites on a weekly basis; (2) programs/courses being offered from different university campuses to off-campus sites via satellite television (one-way video, two-way audio); (3) programs/courses offered from different university campuses to remote locations via land lines (two-way video/audio such as VITEL/PICTEL); (4) programs/courses from various sources offered via the Internet (webbased instruction); and (5) various combinations of the above with different mixes of delivery. The first three models have been popular and in existence in many different locations, particularly since the mid 1980s. However, it has been the more recent development of the electronic commerce methods and the use of the Internet during the past several years that has enabled a great deal of expansion in this overall area of distance education. The objective herein is to describe a recent, and somewhat unique, experience associated with the offering of a logistics engineering course via the Internet. A brief description of the course is presented below along with some comments from the perspectives of the instructor, course administrator, and the student.

Course Description: Content And Structure

During the past several years, Portland State University (PSU), Portland, Oregon, has developed and is currently implementing a graduate program leading to a masters degree in systems engineering which is available and being offered completely through the Internet. This program utilizes the WebCT software package as the medium for delivery.’, Within the context of this program, there are several electives to include a 4-quarter credit hour course, “Logistics Engineering.” This course defines logistics as including a life-cycle approach to the acquisition, distribution, and the sustaining maintenance and support of systems. It also addresses the planning, design, procurement, and the integration of the various elements of support. It covers an introduction to logistics, the measures of logistics, logistics within the context of the systems engineering process, logistics/supportability analysis, and the management of logistics and supporting activities within each phase of the system life cycle; i.e., system design and development, production, system utilization, and the system retirement and material recycling/disposal phases. While the more traditional aspects of transportation, distribution, and issues pertaining to supply chain management are addressed, this course covers much more through its life-cycle approach as applied to systems (versus components and consumable items). Although the course is included within PSU’s graduate program in Systems Engineering, it may be taken by qualified individuals who (1) are enrolled in a graduate program in some other institution and wish to use this as an elective and/or (2) wish to enroll as a non-degree student for the purposes of acquiring subject-matter knowledge.3

The logistics engineering course was offered for the first time during PSU’s spring quarter, March 27-June 12, 2000. There were 21 students enrolled from 12 different locations (including six from outside of the United States). It was taught by Professor Ben Blanchard, originating from Blacksburg, Virginia, with the assistance of a course administrator, Lisa McCade, from Alexandria, Virginia. The students were located in Arizona (1), California (1), China (1), Florida (1), Italy (4), Luxembourg (1), Maryland (1), New Mexico (6), Oregon (1), Texas (1), Virginia (2), and Washington (1). Figure 1 illustrates the geographical distribution including the location of the offering institution, the instructor, course administrator and the students.

WebCT constitutes a software structure developed in the 1990s at the University of British Columbia that includes a number of attributes designed to facilitate the process of instruction. Figure 2 reflects the layout of the icons on the “SYSE 561 – Logistics Engineering” course homepage. One might start by reviewing the course description in the “Welcome Page” before proceeding further.3 Within the context of the homepage, there are a series of course tools (i.e., icons) that provide direct access to course material and important information for the student. These include a syllabus (course description, objectives, grading criteria), student/instructor homepages (introduction of the students, instructor, and administrator to promote good communications from the beginning), student guide (detailed guidelines to help the students relate to course structure and WebCT “operations”), course content (10 learning modules and 10 homework assignments), course events (calendar of activities and homework due dates), and quizzes/tests. There are also links to the monthly SOLE newsletter, SOLEtech and a 170-item logistics bibliography that provides additional discipline-related material. To help promote and facilitate the communications process, there are capabilities to include chat (synchronous communications with instructor and/or groups of students participating simultaneously), bulletin board (asynchronous communications with instructor and all students participating), and private mail (internal private e-mail between individuals and built within the WebCT structure). There is also a capability for adding video clips to facilitate the presentation of material. In addition to what is illustrated in Figure 2, there is the flexibility within the WebCT structure that will allow for the inclusion of other attributes as desired, with the ultimate objective of promoting “student friendliness” and “good communications.”

The first offering of the logistics engineering course via the Internet was very successful based on the feedback from a rather comprehensive and in-depth course assessment. The course was very intensive, requiring more effort on the part of both the instructor and the students than what might have been anticipated initially. It was quite challenging, but rewarding, and was considered as being a good experience all around. With the objective of providing an overall feeling relative to the experience gained, some comments and observations from three different perspectives have been included below – instructor, course administrator, and student. The role of the instructor was, of course, to develop and deliver subject-matter material. The course administrator’s role was to provide assistance to the students in the determination of requirements and utilization of the technology.

Some Observations and Comments – Instructor’s Perspective (B. Blanchard)

With the recent advent and development of electronic commerce methods and Internet capabilities, the possibilities for the delivery of logistics education to interested individuals in any part of the world, and at any time, are unlimited. In this particular course, there were 21 students from 12 different locations, including six from outside of the United States. In terms of communications and materials processing, I experienced no difficulties in this area, whether dealing with a student close to home or in Europe or China.

One definitely has to plan ahead! It is essential for an instructor to first become familiar with the technology and what can be accomplished through its application; set some specific course objectives; develop and install the necessary educational materials on the web site; and conduct some early “testing” to ensure compatibility prior to actually becoming involved with student activities. For this particular course, I first became involved in WebCT familiarization and material preparation in September and continued with course development through midDecember 1999. I had already selected a published text and had taught the material prior via satellite TV and two-way video. Thus, I had some advantages. However, this was my first experience with education via the Internet and some additional lead time was required. I would estimate that, even with some prior experience, it would require a full three to four months of material preparation and installation in the development of any course of this type.

I soon became convinced that the teaching of any course of this nature via the Internet requires a full “team” approach. As we were dealing with a “system” here (i.e., instructor, students, facilities, technology, data network, etc.), all elements must be fully operational when required in order to meet the specified objectives. Prior to the start of the course, and throughout its implementation, there were many questions and requests for assistance from the students who were not familiar with the WebCT structure. They were having difficulties relative to hardware/software compatibility. Given that the computer capabilities available to each student were somewhat different, it required some early adjustments, in spite of the fact that it was initially perceived that all “would be well” throughout (which didn’t turn out to be the case). In any event, I relied heavily on the daily (and timely) assistance from the course administrator who, in turn, was dependent on the support infrastructure that had been established with Portland State University and its technical staff.

From my experience, this course turned out to be almost a full-time job. My objective, from the beginning, was to establish some good communications (i.e., the best possible) with the students. A VHS video tape was initially developed and sent to the students as they registered for the course. Students were encouraged to introduce themselves through the development of a personal homepage. I used the Bulletin Board extensively (285 back-and-forth messages through the 10 weeks). There was a great deal of private e-mail communication (575 messages overall). There were 25-30 external telephone calls initiated and 17 faxes. Completed homework assignments were being posted by the students, often at different times and in different formats (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Acrobat). I was attempting to review, grade and post the results within 24 to 30 hours from when I received them. I am sure that this approach created more work for myself, but my desire was to provide the best service possible and to build student “confidence” to the maximum extent.

While it may sound strange, I personally felt “closer” to the students throughout the 10-week period than what I have experienced in the past in a similar situation when teaching a “live” on-site class. Perhaps this was because of the extra effort applied in attempting to establish good communications from the beginning.

Overall, I felt that this was a great experience, and I am looking forward to a second course offering in the fall 2000.

Some Observations and Comments Course Administrator’s Perspective (L. McCade)

Ideally, the course administrator should be involved with the course from the earliest stages possible. Involvement in the testing and design phase gives one the opportunity to fully learn the tool and to understand the various technical issues that may arise. It also helps for the course administrator to set up a student account and experience the same process that a student will experience.

My time was most demanding during the course registration and start-up and then again, during the final week of the quarter. The registration process was quite tedious, and it was our goal to prevent as much frustration as possible on the part of the students before the course actually started. This meant that I had to go through the registration process for each student, set up their online access and review the university’s records for completion. As the course began, there were many communications regarding software problems, technical questions and general frustrations. At the end of the quarter, I had to make sure that we had received all of the homework assignments and prepared students for the final exam, which was given on-line within a three-hour time limit. The amount of communication between the instructor, PSU, the students and myself was fairly constant.

The great part about technology is that opportunities like this exist and will continue to proliferate. The difficulties lie in bringing everyone up to speed technically. The students had various issues with their systems such as slow modems, browser issues and JavaScript errors. The course administrator needs to know enough about the technology to help the students work through these issues. Luckily, our students were patient and were willing to take the time to try various solutions. I was happily surprised by the fact that having students worldwide did not seem to increase the technical problems. In fact, the foreign students had the least amount of technical issues.

I found this experience to be one of the highlights of my working life. Being involved with PSU, the instructor and the students was a great learning experience. It was very interesting to find out that it is indeed possible to work as a “team” even when groups are geographically separate. It helped that not one person claimed to be an expert in on-line learning – this made us feel that we were learning together and it opened up the lines of communication from the beginning. At the end of the course, I really felt that I had gotten to know most of the students without ever having met them on a person-toperson basis.

Some Observations and Comments – Student’s Perspective (L. Wolfe)

I assumed a leadership role for the group of six students from New Mexico and was involved early in the course process, which was critical to the successful completion of the course. Early involvement by the students was just as important as it was for the instructor. Testing of the “system” was necessary and a familiarization with the WebCT format was required. Even though the transmittal of information was nearly instantaneous, the true communication period was not. Allowances were required in order for the students to answer questions and return homework and quizzes to the instructor. The flexibility of the WebCT format allowed many students to take the course with them on the road via portable computers that I found particularly helpful. While this was a positive aspect of the webbased education, it also highlights the need for up-front planning on the student’s part. I personally found that I needed to work further ahead in the lessons to formulate my questions to the instructor, submit them, receive the response and act on that response (i.e., homework and quizzes) to meet the course deadlines.

For the most part, the students felt that the course was extremely useful and informative. The wealth of material provided by the instructor was incredible, and the support provided by the instructor and course administrator was very instrumental in the completion of the course by the students. There appears to be a unanimous consensus that the WebCT format is a viable medium for education. It needs to be pursued especially for students looking for continuing education and development of advanced skills once out in the work force. This course definitely enhances the opportunities for further growth in the logistics field.


The objective herein was to describe a unique experience in the offering of a logistics course via the Internet to a group of widely dispersed individuals worldwide, and to provide some feedback from the perspectives of the instructor, course administrator, and the students. It was unanimously concluded by all that the course was very successful and the experience gained was well worthwhile! While the advent of E-commerce methods and Internet technology made it possible for the distribution of education via this mode, it was the “team” approach and the on-going communications processes that caused the ultimate success. It is anticipated that the use of the Internet for the distribution of education programs will continue to grow at an alarming rate. The opportunities for students to pursue additional study will be unlimited, independent of where they are located.

Access to this is available to all who may be interested without requiring a user ID/password.


1. PSU’s Systems Engineering Program’s web site is www.eas.pdx.edu/Systems

2. The web site for “WebCT” is www.webct.com

The “Logistics Engineering” course is introduced and described in the “Welcome Page” at web site www.eas.pdx.edu/systems/lgewelcome

Authors’ Biographies

Benjamin S. Blanchard is currently serving as a Professor of Systems Engineering at Portland State University, although residing in Blacksburg, VA. He is also ProfessorEmeritus, Virginia Tech, where he was employed as Assistant Dean of Engineering for Extension and Chairman of the Graduate Program in Systems Engineering (1970-1997). Prior to 1970, he was employed in industry for 17 years where he served in the capacity of design engineer, field service engineer and engineering manager.

Lisa J. McCade, who resides in Alexandria, VA, is employed at PSU as a web designer and course administrator Additionally, she is serving as a consultant in support of various computerbased industrial projects.

Larry H. Wolfe is employed as a Logistics Analyst for ARINC, Albuquerque, NM, and is currently providing R&M support to numerous projects worldwide. He recently (1999) retired as a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Air Force where he acquired almost 15 years of logistics experience and 11 years of flying C-130s. He has worked in acquisition logistics on many programs and managed the R&M testing office at Kirtland AFB just before his retirement.

Copyright Society of Logistics Engineers Oct-Dec 2000

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved