Developing Distance Education Classrooms
In the last decade there has been an abundance of new technology available for schools -- CD-ROMs, the Internet and slick computer graphics, to name a few. One form widely discussed is "distance education," but what really is distance education? How can one teach and learn using this new medium? And, perhaps most importantly, what are the possibilities and limitations of distance learning technology?
The last three years, I have taught over 50 hands-on science lessons using this technology. Each week a link would be made from a studio at Indiana University- Bloomington to three schools of the Indianapolis Public School system -- a distance of about 60 miles. At each school, a big screen television was in place, as well as a camcorder and microphones. The setting was "fully interactive" in the sense that teachers at each school could see and hear me and I could see and hear them. During each of the weekly two-hour telecasts, approximately six K-12 teachers attended each distance learning site (for a total of about 15 teachers each year). Each telecast involved a specific science topic that was presented by conducting a "hands-on" science activity. For example, when the topic of electricity was introduced, teachers at each site were led in the construction of electric circuits using materials they had brought with them. In addition to this class, many of these teachers and I have linked from classrooms to out-of-school settings like a zoo or college.
Over the last three years we've had many discussions on the pros and cons of distance education technology. The issues, tips and observations that follow are those suggested by over 50 teachers who have learned to utilize the technology. How has (or will) distance education transform teaching? To consider this question, here are some issues that have influenced my use of distance education technology. Issues relating to teaching are presented first, followed by technology concerns. But clearly there is an overlap of teaching and technology in all of the topics presented.
Teaching Issues Teaching Styles:
Many of the telecasts I have conducted involved the "doing of hands-on science," meaning that telecasts included a great deal of cooperative learning and much of the telecasts' time was spent constructing science items. What is the best type of class for distance learning technology? Is it one in which there is little lecturing and mostly doing? K-12 teachers and I believe that the technology (and its limitations) requires one to cut the "fat" out of a lesson. This would be true of any topic. Although I am probably biased, most of the teachers and I have felt (and this might seem counter intuitive) that telecasts that limit the amount of lecturing of any sort are the best. Thus the majority of a lesson might involve constructing "items," followed by a discussion. With teaching via distance education, there is a tendency to act as if one were a television news anchor by continually talking. But if the distance between sites is to be overcome, sites need to be doing something during each and every telecast.
Breaking the Ice:
In a single classroom, there is always some degree of anxiety on the part of teachers and students, especially at the start of a school year. When distance education is used, it is particularly important to figure out innovative ways to "break the ice" with regard to the technology. If this is not accomplished, then a class may remain passive and non-interactive throughout a semester or year. One ice-breaking technique involves inviting students/teachers who have used the technology to attend a first class. They then can share their experiences. Also, if past telecasts have been videotaped, short excerpts of lessons can provide an overview.
Building a Human Bond:
Building a bond between all sites is very important. How is such a bond best created among all involved in a telecast? In my experience there are a number of ways to foster a bond. Pictures and names of all participants can be distributed, enabling everyone at the various sites to feel as if they know one another. However, in-person meetings of all participants at one location is very important for bonding. Such an assembly might only be possible once or twice a year, but it will help everyone to get to know one another.
How must questioning techniques be altered? Often there is a delay in the telecast of sounds and pictures from one site to another. This creates an effect as if one were telephoning someone half-way around the world. Will that affect questioning? Also, in a distance education classroom, there often may not be the same degree of eye contact that is possible in a traditional classroom. How will this lack of direct contact (and mobility) in the classroom affect the types of questions asked of students? Regarding delays, although sometimes initially frustrating , I have found that my mind begins to filter them out after a short time into a telecast. Although this helps, certain ground rules and etiquette can be established for those at all sites. This will limit an overlap of questions that can occur because of delays. Additionally, I think that questioning by students and teachers is greatly effected by eye contact. Although the same proximity is not possible, by providing a large-screen television to all sites it is still possible to read body language and make some eye contact so that questions can be well targeted.
Encouraging Interaction Between All Classrooms
When more than two classrooms are linked, how can one foster interaction between all of the sites? We have found that most K-12 students are excited about seeing themselves on TV and talking to other students at distant sites. This inherent interest in socialization can be used to improve interaction between sites.
What class size can one reasonably juggle at each remote site? In a traditional classroom, the maximum limit might be between 20 - 30 students. In a distance education class, which may have students at two or more schools, what is the maximum number of students that can be managed? I suspect that about 30 students total (from all sites) can be handled without too much difficulty. A larger number makes it difficult to build a bond with all of those attending a course, and without this bond it is very easy to feel as if one is simply watching a traditional television broadcast. With distance education, there must be time for sufficient interaction, which seems not to occur with more than 30 students. Other factors affecting class size are the sensitive microphones needed for distance education telecasts and the limitations of cameras. When several students are near one microphone, it can make the transmission of an individual's comments very difficult. And while cameras at each school site telecast a video image to the other schools, the angle of view provided by a camera is not as great as that provided by the human eye so sometimes not all students are visible. This may limit the number of students that can attend a specific site.
Keeping Students "On Task":
In a traditional classroom it is (at times) important to keep students on task, and behavior must be monitored. How can this best be done at a distance? Do proctors need to be present at each participating site? If there must be a teacher at each site (even if they are not leading the lesson), how familiar must they be with the topic? With the majority of K-12 students, an adult should be present in the distance education classroom at all times. However, depending upon the age of students, when classes are small this may not be necessary. For instance, I have found that adults usually do not need to review the science content behind a lesson. However, having someone at each remote site who could answer questions in person might make the class move more smoothly.
In a traditional classroom, it is a simple matter to deliver and distribute supplies to students. However, when two or more sites are being juggled by the same instructor in a distance education setting, logistical concerns become more complicated. How d'es one best get supplies to a remote site? How d'es one collect and return homework? How can one-on-one (private) conversations take place? If many schools are linked during one telecast, how can one coordinate a lesson? In any classroom, long-term planning can save the day; in a distance education class long-term planning is a must. This means that assignments, graded homework and such are mailed a week or more in advance to all remote sites (unless e-mail, BBSs or the Internet/Web is used). This also means that in planning any course, time for postal mailings must be taken into consideration. The issue of one-on-one conversations is tricky, for private discussions cannot take place easily with the technology unless e-mail is available. One of the best ways to handle this? Use the telephone.
It is not uncommon to have transmission failures. For example, the audio feed to a site could fail temporarily, or for an entire telecast. What sort of back-up plans need to be in place? One strategy is to explain at the start of every class what is planned for that one telecast. This way enough information can be provided so that in the event of a problem, the class could continue on its own at all sites. It is a good idea to provide a detailed back-up plan for each telecast in the course syllabus.
Juggling Many Classrooms at Once:
When only two classrooms are linked, it seems to work out well when both can look and talk to the other on their big screen TV. But what is the best way of displaying classrooms when more than two rooms are interacting? In my distance education experiences we have used a "quad screen" that enabled all the schools (three of them) and the studio to be seen and heard at the same time. I think it is important for all sites participating in a telecast to be able to see and hear all other sites all the time.
Training the Teacher:
The experienced K-12 teachers and I have a phrase that we believe to be true, "If you are boring in person, you are really boring during a distance education telecast." It is critical that one teach well with the technology. How d'es one learn to be a good distance education teacher? What is the best training for teachers? School districts must insure proper training of teachers. Perhaps even more critical is exposure to the technology before formal training begins. One good way of providing an initial experience is through staff meetings using distance education technology.
Technology Issues Mechanics: What sort of room is needed?
Where should tables and chairs be placed? Is special furniture necessary? What sort of lighting is required? Where should the distance education equipment be stored? Can it be in a room that d'es double duty as a traditional classroom and a distance education classroom? Probably the most critical "technical" issues affecting success are the clarity of sound and picture from remote sites, and the size of images seen on TV screens. Location of microphones, tables and lights can greatly influence audio and image quality. I would suggest that special furniture is not needed, but how furniture is arranged is important. Participants need to be seated as closely to cameras as possible to make their images appear large for those at other sites.
TV Screen Size:
In a distance education setting, the size of the television screen determines the size of images seen. What TV screen size must be provided? Must images be life sized or will smaller images suffice? In my experience, I have found that the larger the video image, the better the life-like effect. Unfortunately the larger the screen, the more expensive the television. Although there are trade-offs, I would suggest that the investment in a large-screen television is well worth the initial expense, for it is only with large screens that one can provide an image of sufficient size to engage those at other sites. Cameras, of course, can zoom in on very small objects and students, and this, in part, can compensate for screen size. I have found that often the video image (as the result of zooming in on something) provides a better view than what could be done in a traditional classroom. For example, zoom-ins on rocks and insects have supplied "close up" views superior to those one would get in person. Also, by zooming in on students who are asking questions, life-size images are quickly provided.
Location of Equipment in a School:
When computers, televisions and VCRs can be moved easily from room to room, there is less disturbance for an entire school. Presently, distance education equipment can be very bulky. How mobile must the units be? Or where can the units be located so that classes can go easily to them? The best situation is one in which the equipment could be moved easily and there are turnkey systems on carts. However, for most schools the distance education hardware will be located in one classroom. This room must be secure, should be centrally located and have the ability to be wired with the special cables often needed.
Sophistication of Equipment:
Different types of interactive video equipment provide varying levels of sound and picture quality. Some of this depends on the type of telephone cables available in the area. One contrast between differing brands of commercial equipment is that some hardware provides sharp video images, while other equipment supplies, at times, blurry images (if there is a great amount of motion at a remote site). What sorts of K-12 classes will be best suited for high-resolution pictures? Which sorts of classes can make due with lower-quality images? My suggestion is for schools to experiment first with telecasts between two sites. This requires only two sets of equipment. In this case, paying for the highest quality sound and picture should be a top priority. This should be followed by the purchase of a large-screen TV. Additional equipment is nice, but the K-12 teachers and I feel that these priorities are really the most critical.
Technological Support for Teachers:
Ultimately, the technology should become very user friendly. To teach a distance education class, one ideally needs only to turn on a TV and dial a telephone number. Unfortunately, this is not quite the case presently. For districts planning for the future, what sort of technological support is needed to present a distance education class? Every district using distance learning technology should thoroughly train at least one "site coordinator" for each school. This person d'es not need to be a professional engineer, but he/she should be able to turn on the equipment, make sure all the important cables are plugged in, and have contact telephone numbers of others involved in the telecast.
Power of the Promise Although there can be many hurdles in effective use of this technology, there is also a multitude of possibilities. Not only can teachers link their classrooms to other classrooms, but classrooms can be linked to other learning centers such as an industrial science lab or a natural history museum. This technology also enables "follow-up field trips" (after a real field trip). With the prohibitive cost and time involved for a full-day field trip, it can be more efficient to conduct a range of "virtual field trips." Students may also visit locations where safety might be an issue. Another positive aspect of distance education technology is that interactive links between schools can help improve interaction among teachers within districts. The technology is an easy way to provide inexpensive and convenient inservice. Interactive distance education promises to provide great opportunities for teachers and students alike. Teaching with the technology is a challenge, but the benefits make it all worthwhile.
William Boone is an Assistant Professor in Education at Indiana University. He holds a B.S. in Geology, an M.S. in Geophysics and a Ph.D. in Psychometrics. He has used distance education technology to teach three semester-length courses. E-mail: email@example.com
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This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.