When COVID Shut Down Universities, USC Viterbi Was Ready. The Reason? A 50-Year-Old Innovation

| September 14, 2022

The pioneering DEN@Viterbi has set the standard for remote learning excellence for decades, connecting students and teachers from around the world since 1972

DEN@Viterbi offers 41 majors and five certificates (Photo/Keith Wang)

DEN@Viterbi offers 41 majors and five certificates. (Photo/Keith Wang)

It was March of 2020, and Binh Tran had a problem.

With COVID-19 sweeping the globe and businesses and universities shuttered, Tran had one week. One week for him and his team of 25 to move 6,000 graduate students and faculty of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering seamlessly and successfully online.

Previously, Tran, the executive director of DEN@Viterbi, USC Viterbi’s acclaimed distance education network, had managed online support for 900 master’s engineering students.

Logging 80-hour weeks, Tran literally went the extra mile. “My team and I made several house calls, delivering equipment to faculty at their homes and answering their questions and helping some of them with remote teaching,” said Tran, an information technology expert who has served as DEN’s leader since 2006. His team upgraded the platform’s technology; placed large orders for remote learning equipment, such as tablets, document cameras, lights, and HD webcams; and began offering DEN training sessions before the height of the pandemic. They even answered late night phone calls about DEN and non-DEN platforms, including Zoom and various LMS systems.

In the end, they succeeded. But their success was not weeks, or even months, in the making.

It was, perhaps, nearly 50 years in the making.

Few university distance learning platforms, Tran said, were as prepared to accommodate the changing requirements for remote learning as DEN, which this year celebrates its golden anniversary. Described by USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos as “technology enhanced access to the classroom,” DEN has set the standards for distance and hybrid education excellence since 1972.

“Our position right now is where a lot of schools want to be,” Tran said.

The DEN@Viterbi difference

Many universities have remote learning programs, but none with the across-the-board quality of DEN@Viterbi, said Kelly Goulis, senior associate dean for admissions & students engagement and DEN executive director from 2001 to 2006.

Call it the DEN difference.

“What other institutions have done is they’ve separated out with online and said, ‘We have a new [remote] program for you and a different faculty,”’ she said.  “By contrast, we’ve always held to the premise that you’re just receiving the same education, whether in the classroom, remotely or in a hybrid fashion.”

What that means is that the majority of DEN faculty are tenured or tenure-track. While the admission standards for DEN graduate students are identical to those of on-campus students, Tran said.

DEN’s proprietary, in-house technological infrastructure is far more flexible, innovative and adaptable than other universities’ outsourced distance-education platforms, he added. Perhaps that’s why Microsoft recently partnered with DEN to improve its Microsoft Teams business communication platform. DEN plans to better integrate the collaboration application into its technology as part of its partnership with Microsoft.

Through DEN, USC Viterbi offers 41 master’s degrees and five graduate certificates, in areas ranging from electrical to civil engineering, from astronautical engineering to computer science. About 150, or 80%, of all USC Viterbi master’s classes are DEN courses, Tran said, providing invaluable instructional services to the students on campus as well.

For 10 consecutive years, US. News & World Report has ranked DEN in the top five in the nation for both for online engineering and computer science.

“What makes DEN unique is that it connects our online students to what is being taught and experienced by our on-campus students,” said Candace House Teixeira, USC Viterbi’s associate dean of corporate engagement and programs. “DEN and on-campus students are ‘in’ the same class, interacting on projects and working together to solve complex engineering problems. Our online students’ connection to the USC Viterbi campus experience – academics, faculty, and resources – makes DEN unique.”

A technological edge

In an Olin Hall classroom on a steamy August morning, Ellis Horowitz teaches Computer Science 572: Information Retrieval and Web Search Engines, a DEN class with 288 students. As the computer science professor moves around the classroom, a camera tracks his movement. When Horowitz discusses the quality of a particular web browser’s search capabilities, a mathematical equation that measures so-called “precision” appears on a PowerPoint projected on a screen behind him. Students in the classroom and as far away as India, China and Iceland watch him in real time. They can even send their professor questions during his lecture.

“The ability to access our DEN courses is available to anyone with internet access,” said Horowitz, who headed DEN from 1999 to 2001. “The idea of people taking my course from all over the world is wonderful.”

DEN’s technology can do more than simply broadcast lectures live around the world and allow students to message their professors.

With DEN as a platform, USC Viterbi established in 2010 the iPodia Alliance, a global consortium of 17 leading universities. A paradigm for 21st-century higher education, this “classroom-without borders” engenders academic cooperation and collaboration between students from China, India, Greece, Uganda, Mexico, Australia, Taiwan and USC Viterbi, among others.

DurIn March 2020, DEN@Viterbi moved 6,000 graduate students and faculty successfully online in only about a week (Photo/Keith Wang)

In March 2020, DEN@Viterbi moved 6,000 graduate students and faculty successfully online in only about a week. (Photo/Keith Wang)

In several non-iPodia DEN courses, online and on-campus students work together to solve problems, give joint presentations and often participate in study groups, Tran said. The online students, comprised mostly of working professionals, bring real-world experience to the classroom, whereas their on-campus counterparts tend to have a more academic and theoretical outlook. These complementary approaches, Tran added, benefit everyone.

Finally, DEN’s technological capabilities have proven especially valuable to on-campus international students. Not only can they watch captioned, recorded lectures whenever they want, but, in some cases, they can also have them transcribed.

“We’re not a purely online program where resources and tools are available to just that group,” Tran said.” We provide all this infrastructure, all this technology, all these tools to both on campus and online students.”

Making the impossible possible

DEN has made it possible for different students, whether military personnel posted in faraway lands or a quadriplegic doctoral student living on the East Coast, to receive a world-class online engineering education.

Take U.S. Army Captain Matt Smith, who earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering in 2010. Stationed first in Kuwait and later in Afghanistan, Smith completed all his DEN courses while on active duty. Attending his commencement ceremony at USC “was the first time I ever stepped on campus,” he said.

Similarly, Samuel Aspiranti said he appreciated DEN’s flexibility, which allowed him to watch recorded lectures asynchronously as needed. Despite having to frequently move because of his military commitments, Aspiranti successfully earned his M.S. in cybersecurity engineering in 2018.

“I thought I would never be able to [finish] a program at USC, but DEN far exceeded my expectations,” he said.

Without DEN’s technological reach, Ryan Williams might not be where he is today.

In 2008, Williams experienced a freak surfing accident that left him a quadriplegic with no use of his legs and limited use of his arms. Because of his injuries, the then-USC Viterbi Ph.D. student returned home to his native Roanoke, Virginia, so his family could better care for him.

Resisting the temptation to withdraw into himself, Williams redoubled his academic efforts. DEN allowed him to move forward and finish his master’s coursework remotely.

Williams communicated with professors via Skype or email, painstakingly typing 25 to 30 words a minute by putting his right hand in a brace with a pencil at the end. He worked late into the night reading articles and writing research papers about how multi-agent systems interact intelligently and autonomously.

In May 2014, a beaming Williams received a rousing ovation at the Ph.D. commencement ceremony when he collected his diploma. Two years later, Williams beat out 50 candidates and landed an assistant professorship in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech University.

“Without DEN, continuing at USC Viterbi would have been difficult if not impossible,” said Williams, whose research focuses on how robots collaborate to solve tasks. “DEN puts you in the classroom and gives you direct interaction with the professor and even access to [class] notes. It gets a lot of things right.”

At Virginia Tech, Williams has taught 750 students, written 40 academic papers, won the NSF Career Award and landed $5 million in research grants from the National Science Foundation. He is now up for tenure.

In the beginning

In 1984, Dean Yortsos, at the time associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, stood before his class to teach “Flow and Transport in Porous Media,” which dealt with how fluids and matter move through porous media, including soils and fractured rocks. As he spoke, students arrayed in front of him listened intently, furiously taking notes.

Yannis C. Yortsos teaching a DEN course in 1984 (Photo/Courtesy of Yannis C. Yortsos)

Yannis C. Yortsos teaching a DEN course in 1984 (Photo/Courtesy of Yannis C. Yortsos)

A typical engineering course? Hardly.

A camera at the front of the classroom captured Yortsos’ every utterance. After some post-production, a videotape of his lecture was sent to Bakersfield, where about 20 DEN students, all employees at area oil companies, watched the tape. To give these working professionals the kind of individual attention long the hallmark of a USC Viterbi education, Yortsos held office hours – in person.

“I would drive to Bakersfield, 90 minutes each way, to explain the material, as needed, to our DEN students,” he said. “It wasn’t your typical online Zoom thing.”

Although DEN’s technology, academic offerings, and audience have changed dramatically over the past half century, it has continuously remained at the forefront of engineering distance learning. From the beginning, Yortsos said, DEN’s leadership committed to providing the best possible remote education, always putting students’ needs first.

It all started in 1972, the year of “The Godfather,” the launch of the Space Shuttle program, and the release of first scientific hand-held calculator, the HP-35, which sold for just under $400. That year, USC Viterbi offered its first distance-learning courses via the Norman Topping Instructional Television Network, or ITV. Its architect was Jack Munushian, who came to USC in 1968 from Hughes Aircraft and was a close colleague of Zohrab Kaprielian, then-dean of USC Engineering.

“Jack Munushian saw the future, and the future was online learning, distance learning, especially for master’s classes,” Yortsos said. “To an extent few people realize, we at the Viterbi School live in a house that Jack built.”

Through DEN, USC became one of the first universities to award professional master’s degrees in engineering. Technologically, though, the platform initially had limitations. For the first 25 years, DEN offered classes mostly to aerospace professionals via microwave delivery that could only broadcast within a 20-mile radius. Beyond that, DEN students had to watch videotaped lectures sent by mail or by couriers.

In 1997, DEN began delivering classes by satellite to Qualcomm in San Diego and subsequently to corporate sites throughout California and Arizona. Although a step forward, DEN students still needed satellite receivers and other special equipment to watch lectures and otherwise participate in class.

Under former engineering Dean Leonard Silverman’s leadership and with $1 million in support from the Lord Foundation, Professor Horowitz initiated the transition from satellite delivery to delivery across the internet, called webcasting. He also renamed the facility The Distance Education Network, or DEN. His successor Kelly Goulis, in collaboration with USC’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI), accelerated DEN’s move online.

ISI, Goulis said, provided “the technical roadmap” for the transition, which was completed in 2002. “We introduced a pretty novel live delivery system online that didn’t exist before and took it completely online very quickly,” said Goulis, who, as DEN’s executive director tripled its student population. “We expanded our reach tremendously, including to a lot of other market and industry sectors such as energy companies, for example Kuwait Oil and Saudi Aramco and national oil companies in Brazil.”

The DEN of tomorrow

Tran, who has run DEN since taking over from Goulis in 2006, has built on the educational platform’s strong foundation.

Today, all of USC Viterbi’s eight departments, from biomedical engineering to computer science to electrical engineering, offer DEN master’s degrees. The number of majors has trebled to more than 40 today, Tran said. DEN recently added a master’s in health systems management and plans to introduce interdisciplinary M.S. programs in data science with partnerships in communications developed with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and in spatial data science, in collaboration with USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute, among others.

In the next five years, Tran said he wants to introduce artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) into DEN. He envisions virtual tutors and other enhanced learning tools. “Our deep connection to research and research centers sets us apart from other online or hybrid programs in this space,” he said.

“The pandemic reminded us that we must continue to elevate our infrastructure, facilities, and instructional services to faculty and students,” Tran added. “And we will.”




Published on September 14th, 2022

Last updated on May 17th, 2023

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