First-Hand Observations on Tele-Course Teaching

by GEORGE W. WHITAKER, Instructor Florence-Darlington Technical College Florence, S.C. A college course offered as distance education via the media of communication technologies can not only be comparable to an onsite classroom course of traditional pedagogy but can broaden and enrich the teaching/learning experience. The following observations intend to show how this conclusion was reached. They come from the developer and instructor of the course, an experienced classroom teacher but first-time distance education practitioner. Background In November 1994, Florence-Darlington Technical College contracted to offer English 101 to a class of 11 employees of a regional industrial firm who were pursuing their bachelors' of science degrees via an out-of-state university. The class consisted of 16 weekly, three-hour sessions, conducted in a videoconferencing center at a local plant site and transmitted by fiber-optics to two other plant sites in North Carolina. I was the instructor for this class. Four students were present in the classroom with me. Class sessions were taped to be viewed by students who were absent, since they missed from two to four class sessions due to shift scheduling. Students submitted writing assignments (essays) prior to the next week's class session by faxing them to my office. Graded assignments were faxed back, either directly to the students' work sites or to a site administrator who forwarded them to students by the overnight courier service used by the employing firm. Students corresponded with me primarily via e-mail or telephone; one-on-one discussion and revision of essays was frequent. Teaching Observations: Room Design As a teleconference center, the room at the local plant site is good inasmuch as it is designed for a group of people sitting at a table; teleconferencing simply extends the size of the table. The room contains three cameras: a wall camera ("table") placed face-on to the conference table that can zoom to the speaker or pan to all participants, including those in a raised gallery behind the table; an overhead camera ("graphics") that focuses on a 9"x12" horizontal display area on the table; and a ceiling-mounted camera ("presentation") behind and to the left of the table focused on a whiteboard at the front of the room. On the wall in front of the table are two 35" monitors that display the remote conference sites. A smaller 8" monitor displays the host site's output. Each site can see all the other sites. Teleconferencing is achieved by voice-activated switching with ceiling-mounted microphones. (See Diagram.)


However, the conference room was designed neither as a classroom nor a broadcast studio. Students are placed behind the instructor at the table, who must then choose between facing either the on-site or the remote students. (This is not a problem if the onsite class is small enough, six students maximum, to sit beside the teacher at the table.) Placing monitors on the same wall as the whiteboard is also a problem. When the teacher lectures in a traditional "in front of the board" situation, he must look into the presentation camera to establish eye contact with his remote students. If he looks at his remote students on the monitor, then he is presenting a camera profile to them and also turning away from the onsite students. Putting additional monitors beneath the presentation camera would solve this. During class discussion, to allow remote sites to see a host-site student speaking requires selection and focus of the table camera, necessitating an onsite operator to reduce disruption. The set-up of the local site also did not allow me to see both remote sites simultaneously; as a teacher who likes to observe the "facial language" of his students in order to direct questions to them, I found managing classroom discussions more difficult. Teaching Observations: Video-switching Voice-activated video switching requires a deliberate approach to management of class discussion. If other sites cannot be viewed simultaneously, the teacher must direct someone at a remote site to speak in order for that site's video to be displayed. The sensitivity of switching is important. Switching should require a firm voice yet not a shout; neither should it occur during ordinary classroom noise. The differences in individual speaking voices can sometimes cause inadvertent switching or a teacher having to say, "Speak again." Some of the spontaneity of the in-person classroom is lost; however, there will be no sacrifice of classroom interaction and dynamics if the teacher is aware of the necessity for a more formal, choreographed approach to class discussion. The industrial firm that employed the students also wanted to tape each video session. The local site had only one tape deck; thus, when I wanted to show an instructional videotape, taping the class had to be done at another site, somewhat complicating tape distribution to remote students. The host site needs full capabilities to handle course requirements without depending upon other sites. For instance, a site manager was not always present at each remote site to do that site's taping and distribution. All locations had fax capabilities onsite. This is a great advantage; the best laid plans still sometimes require last-minute "handouts" for students. One communications link I would like to have had was the capability of data transfer; a PC at the host site would have allowed me to use an introductory, animated presentation and to generate text for display and discussion. The absence of a computer was not a critical loss for this class, but it would be essential for multimedia presentations. Also, an electronic whiteboard would have facilitated spontaneous presentation. Observations: On-camera Presentation Every aspect of a tele-class requires an acute consciousness of one's appearance, movement, voice, technique-indeed all of the basic visual components of public speaking. There is absolutely no escape when one is on camera. Every action is exaggerated, as if you are being looked at through binoculars. In a campus classroom the students' field of view is wide; they are aware of everything at the front of the room and around them. For the remote student, however, the focus is entirely upon you, the teacher. (Yet, so powerful is the TV medium that even onsite students often focus upon the monitor instead of the live teacher.) Unconscious characteristics of one's presentation, such as head scratching, are thrust upon the students' consciousness. Thoughtful reflection or pausing for emphasis is dead air-time. Looking at the ceiling and "thinking" aloud becomes the same as saying nothing at all. All of these activities are exacerbated by the limitations of non-studio lighting; facial dimensionality disappears in ordinary room lighting. A successful tele-class requires conscious coordination of all classroom activities, and makes one appreciate the director of a stage play, who makes everything appear natural, whereas in actuality nothing is left to chance. For the remote student, class is as much a visual as an aural experience. The two-dimensionality of monitors, lighting limitations and modulation of reproduced sound creates an interesting difficulty: Because I could not see remote students' lips move or hear voice nuances, I had considerable trouble associating names with faces; this remained a difficulty throughout the course. (A 35" monitor should be the absolute minimum for a tele-class.) I had to keep a list in front of me of students' names and site location. All of this makes the spontaneous calling upon students for comments a bit more difficult. From the students' point of view, unless the teacher speaks and looks directly into the camera, what he says may not be heard; we hear with our eyes as well as our ears. Since the effectiveness of a tele-class depends substantially upon the camera, the teacher must be sure to keep on-camera. An instructor used to pacing or walking up and down rows of students will have to give up this practice. A lab stool beside a whiteboard is a great tool, although one must force oneself to stay on it. I find a stool better than a podium because a stool allows for more freedom of body movement, helping to avoid the "talking head" image. If the teacher needs notes, he should use a clipboard or other stiff surface to help keep down the tendency to wave papers or notecards around. (I used a music stand off to the side of the stool.) Something as apparently simple as writing on a board and stepping aside for the class to see must be rehearsed. For example, degree of pan/zoom of the camera must be determined. Do you want remote students to see you and what you've written? If so, can this be done without writing much larger than you're used to? (An electronic whiteboard would allow text/diagrams to be displayed full size on remote monitors.) Further, if you display prepared graphics or write on transparency film on the horizontal display surface, can you "think sitting down," as you will have to in order to discuss what is displayed? Will the graphics (such as a page of text or a p'em) fit in the 3 x 5 ratio required by video production? Such things as these must be planned ahead of class. For example, the display of a p'em in a font large enough to be seen on a monitor (24 point minimum) may preclude the entire p'em being seen at once; the display of a paragraph of standard 12 point, 10 cpi Courier text for discussion is impossible. Many of the same basic audio-visual principles that apply to the use of overhead projectors apply here also. Whether using audio-visuals, speaking or demonstrating, the teacher must keep in his field of view the monitor showing what is being transmitted to the remote sites. This takes practice, especially since a teacher is accustomed to having to focus only upon students physically present. Course Management by Teachers A tele-course demands a more visible structure than d'es an on-campus course. A written syllabus with anticipated assignments and dates of planned activities, and a "welcome to the course" introduction explaining the particulars of course management, are essential. This d'es not mean syllabus dates must be rigidly adhered to, but the teacher has less leeway to improvise. If he d'es so, presentations and activities may come across to the remote student as haphazard. Also, remote students, since they cannot participate as readily in face-to-face give-and-take, need a relatively formal structure to guide their studies. Teachers should expect to encounter some initial difficulties in course coordination and synchronization of the tele-class and submission of assignments. For example, for the first few weeks my students had difficulty receiving videotapes of the sessions and thus got behind on writing assignments. Shift schedules also caused class absences (in one session during which I had planned to go over assignments, only four students attended). The teacher must have contingency plans. In my case I had a few illustrative essays to read and also discussed how the present assignment would relate to the next. I put off the current assignment's due date one week and showed an instructional video instead. All absent students then had time to view tapes of the class session and complete writing assignments. Another "wouldn't have thought of it" glitch-the traditional red ink comments on an essay will not show up on a fax machine. I used blue, which was enough of a contrast for me to see on the original when discussing a student's essay in class or over the telephone and was also readable by students on their faxed-back copies. Planning, not only for the course as a whole but for each class, is absolutely essential and consumes far more time than d'es planning for a conventional course. An entire script d'es not have to be written, but unless a fairly detailed outline of that session's activities is prepared, the session appears to flounder. Practice diminishes this somewhat, but I have found that I must keep near me at least a sheet telling me when to do what-on camera one cannot simply pause while deciding what to do next. (A trick I discovered was to write notes in pencil on the bottom of my display graphics; I could read these notes but they could not be picked up by the camera.) Graphics and other audio-visual materials must be prepared and tested ahead of time. Remember, remote students will not be able to make seating adjustments for a better view or actually handle materials; every teaching enhancement tool will be presented to them via a TV monitor. I also include on my outline what presentation medium, such as whiteboard or horizontal display, to use. (For things I didn't think of beforehand, a box of transparency sheets on which I could write with a fine-tipped marker on the horizontal display surface was a lifesaver.) A computer in my office was my most valuable technological tool, not only for preparing course materials, but as a communication link with my students, as discussed below. There are additional management chores associated with teaching a tele-course. Thus the role of a site manager, technologically and administratively, is a significant factor in success. As a teacher becomes more comfortable with the technologies of teleconferencing, the presence of a site manager in the classroom as a camera operator may become less important; it would be cost prohibitive for every tele-class to require two teachers. However, it is essential to have immediate availability of a site manager who is responsible for ensuring that the system is "up and running"; for setting up videotaping and audio-visual equipment; for managing class registration, distributing textbooks and prepared classroom materials; and serving as liaison between the student and other college services. A site manager must possess both technological and administrative skills. Why Tele-Teaching? This article has focused on a number of the difficulties of teaching a tele-course. There is much that is positive, however, and which can enhance the learning experience and one's personal teaching approach. Upon viewing a videotape of my first class, for instance, I realized that after 18 years of teaching I had taken many aspects of my approach for granted; I was lousy. I have generally felt that my classroom methodology allows for spontaneity on the part of myself and my students, that my classroom is a comfortable environment for learning. However, perhaps those distractions which are so vividly exaggerated on camera to remote students are as obvious to students in an on-campus classroom too. And perhaps the instinctive "order" that a teacher who has spent many years in a college classroom thinks is present in his presentations, is perceived as chaos by a student who is first entering a college classroom. Video instruction forces a teacher to re-think and fine-tune his methodology, through whatever medium it may be practiced. Much has been made of the term "interaction" and the fear of teachers that this must be sacrificed in a tele-course. While it is true that video is primarily a presentation rather than interactive medium, is this not true of the majority of conventional campus courses-in which a body of information is presented to a group of students? Teachers know that quantity of information d'es not equal education, yet information is significant raw material, and is the primary thrust of many types of courses. Video technology enhances, by making more visually powerful, this aspect of teaching. It is required, of course, that the teacher learn the specialized techniques of tele-teaching. Teachers of a tele-class should include a review of Public Speaking 101 as part of their preparation. But what of those courses (such as skill development courses) in which continuous teacher/student interaction is key to learning? My experience thus far is only with English 101. In spite of initial apprehensions, I have found that in many ways this course was more interactive than an on-campus course. One cannot teach writing by lecturing, no matter how refined the presentation technique. On campus, all my students write during a class session while I tutor individually; when essays are returned, written comments are minimal because I review the essay with the student face to face. Continuous oral interaction makes the course successful. In the tele-course, because of the presentation orientation of the medium, oral interaction is limited (although the class did discuss assignments and general principles of composition). Yet the written, textual interaction is greater, in fact extensive. Because I cannot meet remote students face to face, our communication is via the written word. When people talk there is much less need to plan what to say; the fragmented nature of conversation lets people sort of slide into an idea. But writing, since an immediate response to a written phrase d'es not occur, forces a person to establish a more ordered thought up front, to focus upon the specific thought to be communicated, to develop a more formal structure to the phrasing of an idea-which is precisely the skill I am trying to teach! Teaching an English 101 tele-course demanded that I re-learn a skill that had begun to deteriorate. English 101 as a tele-course was successful because my students and I engaged in not only the visual/oral interaction of the televised session, but the multiple avenues of oral and primarily written interaction provided by technologies available to us: fax, e-mail over the Internet, postal mail and POTS (plain old telephone service). When these avenues are utilized, the course breaks the bonds of the American pedagogical paradigm (defined as x number of hours lecture or lab equals x number of credits) and becomes more of the individualized, tutorial type course in the Oxford tradition. The definition of "a course" is broadened to include the fact that interaction is not so much between the student and teacher, but between the student and the subject itself. The above principles also apply to the concept of independent study, for in essence, such a course is taught to individuals rather than to a class as a whole. The re-design of independent study to make use of multiple avenues of interaction can finally make such courses valid, comparable learning experiences. Course Evaluations Examinations of the tele-course students were compared to those of on-campus students in the same age group (late 20s to early 30s). No statistical difference in mastery of competencies (content, mechanics, organization) or exam grade (B-B+) was found. The observation has often been made that mature students generally respond more readily than do younger students to the self-discipline required of a tele-course, but I have no basis for first-hand comparison. There was also no significant difference in responses to questions on student opinionaires. The only tele-course specific suggestion pertained to on-camera methodology: Use of the presentation camera should be increased; seeing the teacher standing in full view is more like a classroom than is seeing him sitting at a table. The Teacher Teaching a tele-course requires that a teacher focus upon things in addition to those required for a conventional course, things which are non-academic per se but are essential for effectiveness in this medium. Teachers must see them not as disadvantages but as differences. It sounds as if a teacher must be a skilled public speaker or TV actor; these skills, in whatever degree possessed by the teacher, are important. But success in a tele-course is more than just learning some new delivery techniques, which most good teachers can do; it requires an entirely different attitude toward methodology-and it is not for every teacher. Many good classroom teachers will not be interested, and that's OK. Teaching a tele-course requires a willingness to break out of the comfort of one's old methodology (which one may discover is not as effective as originally thought), and an enthusiasm to explore the potential of the technologically inevitable. To my colleagues, especially those in traditional disciplines, who express fear that technology will dilute real education, I say unequivocally, "You are wrong." George Whitaker is an instructor of English at Florence-Darlington Technical College in South Carolina. E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.