Teaching and Learning Adaptations in the Use ofInteractive Compressed Video
by DR. GLENN R. WEST, Associate Professor University of Kentucky Lexington, Ky. A considerable amount of journal space has been provided to articles that seek to share the myriad applications of different kinds of media in various educational settings. These articles serve not only to help us understand different types of technologies, but also to stimulate our own thinking about how we might modify selected programs that we have read about to work in our unique situation. The purpose of this article, however, is not to focus on the technology itself, but rather the human reactions and interactions that occur when people employ a certain type of technology for instruction. There are important implications, therefore, for both teaching and learning styles. ICV at University of Kentucky The University of Kentucky has utilized distance learning systems for many years. Several years ago, it made a commitment to interactive compressed video (ICV) as a way to directly link to those community colleges throughout the state that are an integral component of the university system. With such a link, community colleges could offer expanded opportunities to people in their service areas, including graduate programs from the main campus of the university in Lexington. For example, master's degrees in engineering, family studies and special education that had been offered by satellite are now supplemented with a graduate degree program in nursing and baccalaureate programs in physical therapy and clinical laboratory sciences in the ICV format. Two doctoral programs in education (higher education and educational administration), in which most of the course work is done via ICV, are also offered. Additional coursework is completed at cooperating regional state universities, and several doctoral summer seminars are taken in Lexington. Physical Details of Sites The university's Lexington campus is equipped with two ICV classrooms that serve as the courses' originating site. Each participating community college has a duplicate classroom and serves as a receiving site. An ICV classroom contains several specialized equipment items, starting with three cameras: one focused on the podium, one that pans the classroom, and an Elmo document camera (or "visual presenter") focused on a baseboard. Camera signals feed into a personal computer controlled by software from the MediaMax Videoconferencing System offered by VTEL. The software digitizes and compresses the video signals prior to transmission to the receiving site(s). Additionally, there are two television monitors. One monitor shows the instructor whatever image he or she is transmitting through one of the three cameras. While positioning a document on the Elmo document camera's baseboard, for example, the instructor can look up at this monitor to ensure that the entire image is being captured, that the focus is correct, etc. When the podium camera is selected, instructors see their own image. This supplies instantaneous and continuous feedback to teachers about their presentation style. The third camera provides a wide-angle view of the classroom. In addition, it can zoom in on individual students when they speak to provide a larger, clearer image of the person talking to students at the distant location(s). The other monitor shows the ICV classroom at the remote community college. When two or more classrooms are online with the originating source, the classroom camera automatically switches from one classroom to the next every 12 seconds. This amount of time between classroom views generally works well, but each instructor can vary the time to be shorter or longer than 12 seconds if so desired. Responsiveness to students is built into the system. When someone speaks into one of the tabletop microphones, the wide-angle camera automatically switches to that classroom. There is typically one microphone for every one or two people in a class. Community colleges are linked to the university and to each other via a broadband (T1) telephone line that carries both audio and video signals. At the receiving end, a duplicate computer system "decompresses" the video signal and converts it back into an analog format for display on the television monitor. Video compression can cause some loss of resolution and produce a jerky quality in the movement of people and objects. Additionally, there is a slight time lag from when a person speaks until the listener/viewer hears/sees the message. Technically, this not an audio lag; rather, the system is designed to avoid the confusion caused by simultaneous communication by deadening the microphones at one end of the system when someone is speaking at the other. Instructor Adaptations These characteristics of ICV create a different learning environment to which both instructor and student must adapt. The first adjustment that must be made is to the technology itself. Remembering which camera to select while lecturing -- switching back and forth between the podium camera and a graphic on the document camera's baseboard -- takes a little practice. There are other adjustments as well. For example, my first experience with this technology involved teaching to two remote locations. Having been a relative newcomer to Kentucky at the time, I was challenged to remember which group was in one city (Owensboro) and which was in the other (Paducah). The video resolution made it difficult to match student faces to the particular community college and city. I finally identified the class at Owensboro by the color of the walls of the classroom. The other classroom, by default, had to be in Paducah! A major adaptation involves the lack of visual cues one is accustomed to receiving from students through subtle body language and facial expressions.
Because images may lack clarity and be jerky in their movements, the medium masks many student messages sent by body language. Thus, the teacher may lecture on and on, not observing the expressions of existential despair and perplexity on the faces of learners who became confused or sidetracked ten minutes earlier. This problem can be easily solved. Have an ICV technician in each remote classroom zoom in on individual student's faces to provide better feedback to the instructor. More experienced technicians, working with instructors, will soon learn to zoom in on those students whose expressions suggest confusion, anxiety or urgency to share an idea with the class. The time delay inherent in an ICV system may prove particularly disconcerting to the instructor who employs humor in teaching. One can live a lifetime of anxiety during the few moments required for a humorous remark to be compressed, sent, uncompressed, received and then responded to back through the same system. During this time the instructor, who instinctively works on "live audience" timing, is sure he or she has mortally offended the entire class, thereby explaining the total lack of response to the humor. When the approving laughter arrives several seconds later, it is a sweet sound indeed. Timing is important in this medium, not only in the use of humor, but also in the use of questions. Educators generally agree that the most effective learning occurs when students are actively involved. Thus, the utilization of guided discussion and questioning techniques are as effective in ICV as they are in a traditional class -- perhaps more effective. Many teachers, however, become nervous when they ask a question but do not receive an immediate student response. The instructor needs to wait through the silence during which students are thinking and formulating responses. Patience is required, for the undesirable alternative is to become a "talking head" on the monitor, delivering a one-way lecture. Some of us may need to remind ourselves from time to time what the "I" in ICV stands for.
Student Adaptations Missing cues also affect the relationships among students at two different sites. A student at one location, for example, can be presenting an opinion and simultaneously receiving positive visual feedback from students in her class in the form of approving nods and other affirming gestures. The other class, not being able to discern the support and approval of the first class, may react with a dissenting group opinion, tacitly arrived at by means of disapproving facial expressions and other silent forms of communication. At some delayed point, the dissenting opinion typically will be verbalized, frequently to the surprise of the first class group and the instructor. A different dynamic exists for each class configuration. Certainly, in the situation discussed above where there are two distant class locations and an isolated instructor on the central campus, the potential exists for friction between the two classes. Some faculty teach to one or more distant classes but also have on-campus students in the ICV classroom at the origination site. A common report is that some students at the origination site prefer not sharing the instructor with the distant sites. On the other hand, some at the distant sites report that they feel neglected or are receiving a lesser educational benefit. Interestingly, when I have presented courses to only one distant class, there have been no concerns regarding the quality of the distance learning experience, and the class members react to the instructional setting in much the same way as students in traditional classrooms. This seems to point out the importance of the need for the ICV instructor to function not only as teacher but also conflict manager and team builder when responsible for working with two or more distant classes simultaneously. Conclusion Despite some of the aforementioned shortcomings of interactive compressed video for distance learning , I, and most of my colleagues who employ this means of teaching, really enjoy it. It enables us to reach those who could not otherwise participate in undergraduate and graduate education. It also enriches our repertoire of teaching skills while providing a new sense of achievement. As technology keeps improving, the problems cited here will certainly be eliminated. As of this writing I am aware that significant improvements have already been made in image resolution and reducing the staccato-like motion. In any teaching environment, however, there will always be new challenges, whether related to the form of instruction or the characteristics of the teacher and learner. In conclusion, it may be fair to assert that ICV magnifies the strengths and weaknesses of the teacher. Presentations that lack organization and direction are immediately obvious to students, who are likely to respond with apathy and absenteeism. Lectures that are boring in terms of the physical presence of the instructor may induce a near catatonic state when presented by a "talking head" and ICV. By contrast, the instructor who involves students in active learning, seeks feedback from students continuously -- either verbally or through non-verbal cues -- and effectively manages the ICV class finds that his or her efforts are appreciated perhaps more than in the traditional classroom. Glenn West is an associate professor of education, health and physical education at Transylvania University in Lexington. As an adjunct professor in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky's Lexington campus, West also teaches a doctoral course entitled "The Adult Learner in Higher Education" in which students are taught how to make presentations on the ICV system and more. E-mail: email@example.com >Products or companies mentioned: Elmo Manufacturing Corp., New Hyde Park, N.Y. MediaMax Videoconferencing System ; VTEL, Austin, Texas
This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.