DISTRIBUTED EDUCATION: HOW TEACHERS AND STUDENTS USE INTERACTIVE AUDIO AND VIDEO DISTANCE EDUCATION TOOLS IN A COLLEGE ENVIRONMENT
Description of the Distance Tools
Golden Gate University (http://www.ggu.edu ) is a private institution with law, technology, business and tax schools. The main campus is in San Francisco, California. In technology and business, we provide both graduate and undergraduate education. The university has several non-San Francisco teaching sites, in Monterey, Sacramento, San Jose and Walnut Creek.
The university has a successful and lauded Cybercampus; many of our degrees and courses are taught online. (http://www.ggu.edu/cybercampus )
This paper discusses a delivery modality called Video Interactive Program (VIP). Students attend in-person class weekly; the classrooms at various sites have monitors, microphones, a computer projector, document camera, video player and one or more cameras. Students from various locations can attend class and see/interact with other students and the teacher in real time. These combined technologies are generally referred to as a video conferencing system.
This type of delivery system isn’t new. What is somewhat novel about our approach is the emphasis on a pedagogy designed to use the potential strengths of this system; the primary strength is the ability to create a learning community among geographically dispersed students, giving them the ability to interact in several ways with each other, in real time.
We’ve developed a consistent pedagogical approach to be used with all courses taught on this VIP conferencing system. In our setting, the length of the course is 10 weeks. Students meet in class for two hours, and are expected to undertake two hours of homework and activities prior to coming to class. This can consist of traditional homework, research, work in groups, or preparing presentations to be delivered in class, or placed online.
In-class time is intended to be used interactively, and not necessarily for instructor lecture. In practice this is a goal more than a consistent outcome, but it’s a good goal: we want to make class time an opportunity for communication and interaction between teacher and students around course matters, rather than merely time for a teacher to lecture or to direct other traditional activities.
To this end, we use narrated PowerPoint presentations as lectures. These are intended to be accessed prior to the face-to-camera version of the class. These lecture/presentations are posted online in the Cybercampus environment. Students can listen to a streamed version, read a text version, and download the audio version if they wish.
The Cybercampus environment is used in a supplementary way for document sharing, discussions, and general non-real time information exchange. Exams may also be posted and taken online, depending on the instructor and course.
So overall, two hours of class time are undertaken by the student, interacting with assignments and the narrated PowerPoint lecture/activity material. The weekly two hour class time is intended to be spent in student activities, including discussions, reporting, research discussions, and discussions of technology and business practices.
The current network approach is a TCP/IP system, using Voice Over IP (VOIP). This means that both voice, video and data are delivered between sites over the Internet. A previous incarnation of this system used twin ISDN lines and a bridge system, provided by a major telecommunications carrier.
What it Looks Like
The San Francisco site consists of a classroom with a large desk at the front. On the floor are tables and chairs that can be configured. On the student tables are various microphones.
Video is captured by presenter-controlled cameras. One camera is at the back of the room, atop a monitor; it captures the teaching space at the front of the room. The other camera, used primarily to view students when they talk, is positioned to the side of the room.
There are 4 monitors, two at the back and two at the front. Depending on configuration, students can see combinations of the classroom, a regional classroom and student, or instructor/student presentation material.
At the desk, the instructor has 2 remote control devices, like home tv remotes; a computer (used for Internet access, or for presentation software); a document camera; a VCR/DVD player; and a lavalier microphone.
In the distance classrooms, there is a monitor/camera, so that students can participate. Site-based students can also control their own presentations.
As currently configured, the viewing field is voice activated; that is, when a person at a site speaks, that site is seen in the video monitors. This feature can be controlled by the main presenter if desired.
The Prime Directive
One can infer that in such a design, the Prime Directive must be, The Technology Shall Always Work. In the discussion that follows, I’ll discuss what happens when academic programs rely on technologies that do not consistently work as expected.
The title of this paper is “Distributed Education: How Teachers and Students Use Interactive Audio and Video Distance Education Tools in a College Environment.”
In practice, the Technology Gods haven’t yet allowed us to consistently enjoy the Prime Directive noted in the previous paragraph. During the Spring 1 trimester, which was 10 weeks, I enjoyed 3 of 10 sessions where the technology worked as it was supposed to. Other instructors have had roughly the same experience. First, we talk about creating a narrated PowerPoint, which is a time consuming process, but necessary in our pedagogical model. Then, we’ll talk about the ups and downs of using the technology. Here we go:
Creating a Narrated PowerPoint
This topic may seem a bit out of place, but it is a cornerstone of our pedagogical model, so it merits discussion. Here is the process of creating a narrated PowerPoint:
When done for the first time, and multiplied by 10-15 units or modules depending on course length, this is highly time consuming. Each unit can take 2-5 hours to do, if you’re starting from scratch. After you’ve done it the first time, the process is somewhat easier.
However, since in the technology field things change so rapidly, each semester it is necessary to review your audio PowerPoints and make changes, which in itself is a tricky, inconsistent process.
Practice on small presentations; don’t try to ‘go live’ at the last minute by changing narratives on specific slides with your working presentation.
I mention all of this because informal comments from my students indicate that they often use the text version rather than the narrated PowerPoint; these results may not be true for all courses and teachers. Indeed, some of my students say that it’s ‘nice to hear the instructor’s voice, so you know there’s a real person there.’ To me, the narrated presentations are a mixed blessing: they are time consuming and some students don’t bother sitting through them as long as a text version is available, but some students like the ‘real person’ sense they provide.
It might be that other less time consuming audio presentations could be used: Introductions, announcements, reminders, and the like.
The System: Strengths, and the Reality of Dealing With Problems in Real Time
On a good night, the system is fun to use. Students and instructor can interact, students at remote locations feel part of the class, and the technologies work: everyone one can see the document camera, the instructor, the students as they speak, the computer screen and videos.
That’s on a good night. During my 10 week class, I had only 3 such ‘fun’ nights.
Now we have to discuss problems.
Ideally, technology systems are tested before use. In the real world, they are often tested in use. This means that problem solving, a basic part of system implementation, occurs during use.
I have to speak here of the support staff. We have wonderful, helpful support staff, who have labored with us to provide assistance. However, they are not experts in this sort of system, so we all end up learning together – in real time, during class time.
There is, as you might expect, an overriding tendency on the part of support staff to blame the network. This means that a teacher must accept a bogeyman perspective to use the system, since there will be no apparent explanation for many problems; as a result, “the network” receives a lot of the blame.
The first of those problems is instability. For one instructor one night, the system will work well. The next class (which might abut the first, or occur on a later night) the same setup will experience numerous problems. Here are samples:
1. Sites drop off the system, requiring that the instructor (or support staff) “stop everything” and reconnect – again, in real time, with students sitting around, waiting.
2. The remote devices in the teaching room do not properly operate the camera/document camera/presentation/site view functions. This has been blamed on the lights in the classroom.
There is an element of comedy relief in trying to change from, say ‘teacher view’ to ‘document camera’ or ‘PowerPoint’ mode when the remote is acting up: the instructor points the remote device at the receiver, clicks, and it does not work. Then begins a dance where the instructor has to contort, move about the room, twist his/her arm, lean over the desk toward the sensor, curse under his/her breath, in an attempt to get the remote to function, all the time watched by students. Some find it funny, but I’m sure that some have less charitable thoughts.
3. This problem is the most frustrating. Ideally, switching between PowerPoint slides will result in an almost immediate switch across the system. That is, all sites will experience the slide to slide transition in real time.
On our system, again for somewhat unexplained reasons, it has taken up to 40 seconds to transition between slides. On one bad yet consistent (consistently bad?) night, slides took 11 seconds to change, all night.
4. Back to audio: when such things as noted in #3 occur, teaching goes out the window and the course moves to a pure survival mode, based on audio. The teacher apologizes profusely, is embarrassed, and the course moves ahead. Fortunately, the audio tends to work pretty consistently among sites.
But then, audio might go out too. At that point there’s the phone: each site has a phone and can be in contact with the teaching classroom.
What do Students Think?
It is our belief that the best use of the technology described here is in the creation of a classroom community among a dispersed set of students. When the system works and the instructor is comfortable with it, teaching in this mode can be satisfying to all participants.
Speaking of students, they are often vocal about their frustration with the system, but that frustration appears to be tempered by the shortened overall time of the VIP course; recall that the actual class time is 2 hours, and we are dealing with 10 week classes. Students are students, regardless of age: their primary motivation is to complete their coursework, get a good grade, and move on. So for them, the frustrations expressed in this paper from my perspective are balanced against their desire to get it done. In this, they are no different than you or I were as students.
However, from a practical perspective, it is extremely poor business practice to have students take away a lukewarm educational experience, given the cost of the classes and the university’s need to maintain enrollment. Positive word of mouth is the best advertising for a program. For this reason alone, we owe it to students to have a system that works.
I’ve presented a number of experience based-caveats in this paper, and described some high points as well. My experience with the system has been in line with what I’ve described here. On some nights, it works flawlessly, and on others, everything that can go wrong, does. So I am intrigued by the potential of the technology, rather than by our current number of successful sessions. But when it works, I see its strengths in uniting geographically dispersed people.
If you are considering adapting such technologies, here are some questions that need satisfactory answers, before adoption:
1. Is there real support for the system at appropriate levels in the institution? Is there a champion in the institution with enough high level respect to ensure that consistent support?
2. Does the system work as advertised? Will it work over time, with minimal support?
3. What documentation is available? Who will write it?
4. Will there be training? Who will create trainings and materials?
5. Do we have a relationship with the vendor that allows ongoing support? (The other side of this question is, did we purchase a system with no support options, leaving questions and problems up to us to solve?)
6. Will there be real time assistance during class time?
Ultimately, the most important user are students. We have not conducted focused research on the impact of the system’s function, or non-function, on their perception of our programs. It is my impression that they view each course as an entity, and that problems with an individual course may not impact their overall impression of our programs . . . but that is my perspective, based on conversations and some written feedback from students.
The technology is ultimately only a tool. This particular set of technologies has the potential to be an interesting, helpful and, yes, fun tool, but it must work.
We on the faculty continue to work with our IT support staff in improving the system. We are all committed to having the system perform as it is intended, and over time, I’m sure it will. Technologies have growing pains, and we who use technologies in teaching have to be both academics and gadgeteers. We’ll make it work.
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