The SKILLS System: A New Interactive Video Technology

by DR. CARL H. RINNE, Associate Professor University of Michigan-Flint Flint, Mich. Developed recently at the University of Michigan, a new interactive video technology places a small video camera on a computer to videotape trainees as they practice skills. Trainees then play back their videotaped performance and compare their competence with a pre-recorded expert. While almost any conceivable skill may be imparted using this technology, the system is especially suited to interpersonal skills such as teaching, counseling, selling, public speaking, leadership, management and supervision, customer service and other such social activities. In addition, highly specialized mechanical skills such as instrumental and vocal music, medical procedures and specific industrial operations may be well served by this technology. How It Works Imagine that you want to teach your students, employees or job applicants some kind of skill, perhaps pertaining to selling or a mechanical skill. Sitting alone at the computer, each trainee watches a pre-recorded expert demonstrate the skill. Then the trainee strives to perform that same skill, in real time and motion, as competently as the expert. Each time the trainee performs, the video camera records it. The computer then plays back the trainee's performance on one half of the screen and the expert's performance on the other half, inviting the trainee to compare the two. A trainee may practice over and over, as often as desired, each time comparing him/herself to the expert. When ready, the trainee takes a "test," that is, performs the skill without the expert onscreen. Trainees may record as many tests as they desire, then must select the one test performance they consider to be the "best." That test is stored for later review by a supervisor or instructor, who will need only ten seconds or so to judge the trainee's skill mastery. What do trainees say about the new technology? In field testing at two campuses of the University of Michigan, trainees are enthusiastic: "To actually see yourself puts everything in a whole new perspective!" Nuts and Bolts The software system consists of a template plus application materials. In its original form, the template is a HyperCard stack that allows any video and screen-content materials to fill its cells. Developed applications or "modules" consist of pre-recorded videodisc segments and pre-designed screen graphics that are placed within the template according to the particular skill to be taught. During training, trainees' performances are recorded using QuickTime. The original hardware configuration was a Quadra 700 with 16+ MB of RAM and 230MB hard disk, a videodisc player and a small video camera offering S-VHS output. The software copyright is owned by the Regents of the University of Michigan. Origins and Availability Conceived by the author in 1991, the SKILLS System, as it came to be named, was built in 15 months at the university by a five-member development team within the Office of Instructional Technology. The team initially field tested the system at the university's Flint campus with a module developed for teacher education. This module teaches a classroom-management skill called "shaping-prompting." Other modules currently under development include selected management and supervision skills, customer service and techniques for customer relations, plus more on classroom management. The work is sponsored by grants from the State of Michigan Research Excellence Fund and various offices within the University of Michigan's campuses at Ann Arbor and Flint. New modules are being planned in nursing, physical therapy, teacher education and management. Various departments within the university's Flint and Ann Arbor campuses are involved. Another area being explored is the training of teaching assistants for undergraduate courses at the university. While the concept and technology were developed at the university, a spin-off company has been established to carry the new technology into the marketplace. SKILLS, Inc. is currently negotiating with the University of Michigan for a license to market the SKILLS System as a new product. Future product development will include conversion to DOS and Windows platforms, production and sale of generic software training modules, and customized application services. Benefits of Innovation The novel use of video feedback in training makes the SKILLS System a truly unique format in interactive video. In conventional interactive video systems, the trainee simulates skill performance on a keyboard, mouse or touchscreen. In the SKILLS System, the student actually performs each skill with voice and body motions. This innovation allows for automated training in skills that previously required tutorial clinical settings. Furthermore, each trainee may practice and test in complete privacy, thereby eliminating learning anxiety and mislearning in distractive surroundings. Innovation is also evident in the potential flexibility and adaptability of the system. In conventional multimedia systems, the software is complex, making changes both difficult and costly. In contrast, the SKILLS System is designed to be changed. It consists of a template into which video segments can be placed and replaced according to changed personnel needs, changed equipment and changed organizational procedures. Accountability is still another innovative feature of the SKILLS System. Each trainee's performance is totally monitored, hence no trainee can "cheat" during testing. A supervisor or instructor can reliably evaluate the verbal skills and learning abilities of many people in a short time, as many as 45 persons in just 15 minutes according to our experiences. What d'es the SKILLS System replace? It can replace lectures and seminars in which people talk about skills rather than doing them. It can replace the time-worn excuse, "I've never been able to do this because nobody ever sat down and showed me how." But the SKILLS System will also strengthen the effects of lecture and seminar teaching methods by raising the floor of trainee competence to a basic level of understanding: "Yes, I understand what you are talking about because that happened to me in the SKILLS training program..." Benefits of Quality Excellence in terms of training quality is manifested in several ways. First, the system permits any number of skills to be taught individually to the highest possible standard of modeled expertise. The system presents a variety of benchmarks, in its experts, by which trainees can measure their level of mastery. Each skill may be illustrated quickly and efficiently with literally hundreds of examples. Second, this new tool provides training power in a manner never before possible in a cost-effective environment. Each trainee can practice over and over again until he or she has "got it right." A high degree of skill mastery is assured when virtually unlimited opportunities are offered to each trainee for practice and expert "coaching." Third, in addition to learning designated skills, trainees automatically develop the ability to evaluate their own competence. Self-evaluation is an integral part of learning with the SKILLS System, and it is expressly designed to gradually remove any crutches and impediments to independent, self-reliant learning. Significance The SKILLS System is a truly new form of multimedia technology. A school or college, private business or public agency can provide extremely powerful clinical training experiences for large numbers of people. Furthermore, because each trainee actually performs the skills, training stations can also be used for job screening, with administrators and supervisors able to watch a person's aptitude in learning and applying skills. Cost effectiveness will eventually be a strong feature of this new system. Once initial template costs are covered and hardware is in place, new applications can be purchased or produced relatively inexpensively. Large numbers of trainees can then be given individualized training with minimum overhead and almost no maintenance costs. One training station can serve many different applications and "live expert" supervision can be eliminated during training, thus increasing versatility while cutting costs. In ancient times, most skill learning was done through apprenticeships in which experts tutored trainees one-on-one. Such one-to-one training has become less feasible during the 20th century, yet the need for individualized expert training remains. The new SKILLS System allows us to provide traditional apprenticeships and tutorials today and into the 21st century. For more information on the SKILLS System, contact: Edward Saunders Director, OIT 1600 School of Education Bldg. University of Michigan Ann Arbor, MI 48109 Carl Rinne originally conceived the SKILLS System and led the development team at the university. He is an associate professor in the department of Education at the University of Michigan-Flint. E-mail: Carl_Rinne@um.cc.umich.edu

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.

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